Activist by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Social media activism brings awareness about topics to a huge audience. But the big question is, does it bring about meaningful change or does it just lead to Slacktivism? Slacktivism is “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.”1
Slacktivism is a problem for social media activism, but if a campaign goes viral on social media it can have a positive effect and make a difference. People that would never have been exposed to a topic are suddenly seeing posts and learning about a movement. Three examples of social media movements that have had a serious impact are the ALS Challenge, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo.
The ALS Challenge involved filming yourself while you pledged to donate money to ALS, nominating other people for the challenge and then pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over your head. This is probably one of the most successful social media campaigns ever! The challenge spread very quickly through social media and it raised $115 million for ALS! It increased awareness about ALS, but it also saw lots of people participating that just wanted to be a part of something that was trending. It is doubtful that everyone who participated donated or cared about the cause.
Flickr – Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter by Johnny Silvercloud
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a movement that is raising awareness about police brutality and killings of black people in the United States. They want people to recognize the inequalities of how people are treated by police, depending on their race. “BLM regularly holds protests speaking out against police killings of black people, and broader issues such as racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system.“2 The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to trend in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin.
Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement, she is a civil rights activist who created the hashtag in 2006 to address the fact that a large number of women have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their lifetime, but most don’t report the assault or share their stories
But it wasn’t until the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag, and it began being used in reference to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations, that the movement really took off.3
This movement has started tough conversations around sexual assault and harassment. Even though it has raised awareness around sexual harassment in the workforce it has also led to backlash. According to the article, Me Too Backlash Is Getting Worse, “Some men also like to claim that women are fabricating claims. Those fears are largely unfounded… the same myth surrounds sexual assault. False accusations make up a very low percentage of reported rapes.” This has led to men feeling uncomfortable working one-on-one with women and therefore excluding them from meetings and social interactions.
Another negative aspect of social media activism is the call-out or cancellation culture. The call-out culture is the act of publically calling out or shaming someone on social media for perceived wrongs. This then leads for calls of boycotting either people or companies and that is the cancel culture. One of the worst aspects of call-out/ cancel culture is that it prevents conversations from happening. If someone’s views are considered offensive and boycotts are called for, this prevents further discussions from happening.4 When maybe the solution would be to have a dialogue, to see and learn from each others point of view. This trend began in 2015, but it really started to take off in 2018. Some notable instances of cancellation are when Roseanne Barr was fired from Roseanne after she tweeted racist comments, James Gunn was fired from directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 when inappropriate jokes he tweeted in 2008 and 2012 resurfaced, and Kevin Hart was fired from hosting the Oscars when old homophobic tweets were uncovered.
Even though there are some negative aspects to social media activism, I agree with what Alex Guardado says in Hashtag Activism: The Benefits and Limitations of #Activism. Guardado says that hashtag activism can bring about change, but it is gradual. It is easy for people to share or like a post, and even easier for Slacktivism to occur and for nothing to actually change. The good thing is that people are much more informed and it is easier to organize movements because of the large audience a movement has access too through social media.
People use social media every day and spend a significant amount of time on it. It would be foolish to not try to harness that time spent to bring awareness towards something important. Even if it just starts a conversation, that is better than nothing. Change definitely won’t take place if people aren’t aware there is a problem.
For the purpose of our class, we discussed activism through social media and were asked to consider the following questions:
Can online social activism be meaningful and worthwhile? Is is possible to have productive conversations about social justice online? What is our responsibility as educators to model active citizenship online?
What is social media activism?
“Social media activism is essentially using the platform of an online forum to lead or support a cause. It’s activism behind a screen.” (The Journal – Queen’s University)
“Bringing change or awareness about a cause through the use of social media, by posting or sharing ones thought about a particular event or issue.” (Life of Anna)
These definitions are very basic, but “social media activism” is somewhat self-explanatory – it is activism using social media. It could be liking or sharing a post on Facebook or using a hashtag in online posts to bring awareness to a particular issue. If you use social media, you have probably viewed or participated in hashtag activism:
You may have added a filter to your Facebook profile picture to temporarily support a cause. Or clicked the retweet button to raise awareness while drinking your morning coffee. The question we must ask ourselves is if social media activism is meaningful and worthwhile and looking at the positive and negatives is one way to explore the answer.
Pros of Social Media Activism
“Successful maneuvering of social media platforms creates significant changes in society through the impact of an individual who cultivates awareness and makes knowledge accessible to millions.” Human Rights Education Research Outreach
Allow marginalized groups to express their views freely
Using the power of networks, “online activism allows activists to organize events with high levels of engagement, focus and network strength” (The Conversation). The ability to share, like and retweet instantly allows movements and causes to gain traction very quickly and draw in a large audience. For example, when a tragic events occur, vigils are planned, shared and attended in a short time frame, all thanks to social media. Larger events are organized in locations all over the world through hashtags and social media posts.
Finally, the good, badly and ugly part of the Internet is that you can post and support whatever you want at any time. A positive example is that people all over the world can be part of Pride festivals, even if they are unable to attend in person.
“One of the greatest things about social media is the platform it can give to otherwise isolated and marginalized people. Entire communities have developed and grown together over social media, and this has exponentially strengthened many activism campaigns. Social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow people to organize events and communicate on a medium that is accessible to anybody who has an email address, internet, and some kind of connectable device. This vastly increases potential audience size, and ultimately increases the possible effect that these campaigns can have on policies, politics, and everyday life.” The Power of Social Media in Modern Activism
Cons of Social Media Activism
“The ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.” Zeynep Tufekci
Unfortunately, social media activism has drawbacks:
A 2014 Maclean’s article explains that a “slacktivist is someone who believes it is more important to be seen to help than to actually help. He will wear a T-shirt to raise awareness. She will wear a wristband to demonstrate support, sign a petition to add her voice, share a video to spread the message, even pour a bucket of ice over her head.” All of this takes place instead of offering time or money which could truly help a cause.
My classmate Brooke dives into a deep discussion of #slacktivism and a few articles that explain and criticize the movement. She included this image (shared in class by Dr. Couros) that highlights the problem with #slacktivism.
“If our desire for social change extends beyond the resolution of a single issue, we need to close our laptops, turn off our phones, and spend time in the presence of others.” – The Walrus
With the ease of liking and sharing posts or adding a hashtag, it is inevitable that the wrong information will be passed along. #FakeNews is a perfect example of deliberately sharing misinformation, which was particularly problematic during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. #Kony2012 is another example of a movement that exploded on social media without really understanding the true facts. Social media activism has the potential to raise awareness, spread a message quickly and help grow a movement. But it is important to not disregard the power of slow-growing, face-to-face, grassroots organization. Wael Ghonim (an Internet activist that helped organize the social media campaign during the #ArabSpring) discusses challenges facing social media today and how it can be used to promote real change:
Before we can have conversations about social justice online, I think it is important to discuss the concept of a digital citizen and to understand three different ideas of citizenship as discussed by Westheimer and Kahne in the article, “What Kind of Citizen“.
Participatory – actively participates
Personally Responsible – acts responsibly in their community
“digital citizenship asks us to consider how we act as members of a network of people that includes both our next-door neighbours and individuals on the other side of the planet and requires an awareness of the ways in which technology mediates our participation in this network.”
With this knowledge, we are able to explore the possibilities of using social media to talk about social justice issues online. Below, I have shared Brooke’s (she made some excellent points in her post this week!) example of how each type of citizen may participate, using the food bank as an example:
The participatory citizen might create an online fundraiser, like a GoFundMe page, where people can donate to the food bank and use their social media page to highlight some of the issues related to perceived injustices regarding food security. They may also decide to volunteer at the food bank.
The justice-oriented citizen might use their social media page to share potentially controversial articles, and viewpoints which spark discussion about the root causes of food security, inviting others to join the discussion and organizing followers to contribute to participating in working towards social change in online and offline spaces.
The conversations about social justice can happen online, but they are more effective when they are rooted in offline organizational efforts. Another point is that online discussions should take place with the intent to promote change or raise awareness, rather than use the post for personal gratification (for example, getting lots of likes or shares). But how do we teach our students to use social media to have meaningful conversations about social justice issues online?
As educators teaching students who only know a world with social media, we should:
Teach students how to use social media for positive change
In Spring 2018, I participated in a joint Regina Public Schools/Regina Catholic Schools project called #YQRActivistArt. The project involved bringing the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra to Regina with an opportunity for our students to see the group perform live. To participate in the project, you had to commit to producing an art project in response to a social issue. Through planning and collaboration with other classes, our students chose social issues they wanted to explore and created an art piece to raise awareness about the issue. Every school did something different, and my students presented their projects in a school wide gallery opening:
The reason I share this story is because of the importance of teaching activism in schools. My students were engaged, motivated and excited to spread awareness and it allowed us to have conversations about meaningful and worthwhile ways to share information about different social issues. The guide, “Facilitating Activist Education” explains by teaching about activism, students may become “engaged citizen-activists – people who see themselves as capable of affecting positive change for social and ecological justice”.
By starting with offline activism experiences for our students, we can then move online with confidence.
Hildebrandt explains that by participating in social media activism, we take a few things for granted, like access to educational tools, computers and the Internet. With this privilege, she adds that “we have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.” Furthermore, as educators we have the responsibility to teach our students about this privilege. Wasting our time with #slacktivism is not an option because we have the power and ability to promote real change with our access to edtech tools and social media to support these efforts.
Finally, Yes Magazine shares four tips for using social media activism:
Take advantage of interactive activism opportunities in online communities
Make sure your activism is accessible and inclusive
Remember that small steps are critical to getting the work
Share the work that other activists are doing
To engage our students, we need to provide relevant tools and information to “speak their language” (using social media and edtech). Through conversations of digital citizenship and offline activism, we have the ability (and responsibility) to mold the next generation as informed and compassionate citizens who care about social justice issues. Let’s use social media to make the conversation relevant for our youth.
“Social media activism is great for so many reasons: It is more widely accessible, it gets conversations started, it sustains momentum, and it helps empower people who may have never thought of themselves as activists.” – Yes Magazine