In recent years, social media has played an important role in social and political movements worldwide. Social media offers many benefits to activists, including the ability to reach wider audiences and greater connectivity. At the same time, it also presents real engagement and security concerns. In this semester’s final edition of Seeing Double, we debate the question, “Has the rise of social media helped or hurt activism?”
At first glance, social media seems like the perfect tool for activism. Leaders can reach out to millions of people directly with the push of a button. Grassroots movements can rise to prominence without the need for major funding or institutional power.
Despite these advantages, however, social media is a Trojan horse to would-be activists. Far from elevating movements, it more often devalues, undermines and actively silences those very causes who would seek to use it as their platform.
The wide reach of social media does help spread messages farther than ever before, but that reach comes at a price. We’ve all seen the predictable cycle of social media activism: Public outrage explodes as some injustice comes to light; people share messages or change their profile pictures. But within a week or so, the tide of activism recedes, leaving behind little evidence that it ever happened.
This so-called ‘slacktivism’ — lax engagement that starts and ends with clicking Facebook’s share button or a retweet — creates an illusion of progress but rarely results in real change. These facades of activism are visible everywhere online.
For instance, the Facebook donation page for Save Darfur, a group focused on the Darfur genocide, attracted over 1 million sign-ups over the course of three years. However, of those million people, only 3,000 donated any money, for a pitiful haul of $90,776. The sociologists Kevin Lewis, Kurt Gray and Jens Meierhenrich took up this case in a study and noted that social media had created the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.” When organizers de-emphasize social media and rely on more traditional methods, such as in-person demonstrations and meetings, they stand a better chance of success.
But even when social media does manage to spur tangible action, its impersonal nature creates passionate but unfocused movements. We saw this during both Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Social media united people against a common foe, but the platform was too limited to allow activists to agree on a cohesive plan or strategy. As a result, the movements had no leaders, no organization and consequently no clearly defined goals or method of achieving them.
Even when the passion of the activists draws the attention of those in power, such as when Egypt’s 2011 revolution drove out President Mubarak, the activists had no way to shore up their success and fell into infighting and chaos. Effective activism requires centralized coordination in addition to passion, but social media makes it very easy to ignore the former.
The free communication granted by social media is also a liability. Activists can use social media as a megaphone, but so can their opponents. By definition, social movements face powerful opposition who want to maintain the status quo, and those individuals and groups are just as web savvy as activists.
During the civil rights movement, for instance, the FBI spied on Martin Luther King Jr. and blackmailed him in an attempt to stop the movement. That kind of surveillance and harassment of leaders becomes incredibly easy with social media. Governments can easily identify and target anyone who posts or shares subversive messages. This has already happened in countries like Saudi Arabia where those who challenge the government online risk imprisonment.
If the situation gets out of hand, governments also have the ability to cut off access to social media entirely. If social media is the main line of communication for activists, that poses a dire problem to nascent political movements. This tactic has already been used to great effect in Sudan, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and other countries. The companies that control social media, like Twitter and Facebook, are no more supportive of activists. Recently, Google made the controversial decision to expand into China, but in doing so, reworked its algorithm to hide results unfavorable to the Chinese government.
But the opponents of activism do more than passively monitor social media. More than 70 countries currently use online disinformation campaigns to disrupt activist groups and incite reactionary movements. We already saw this happen during the 2016 election when Russia created thousands of fake accounts that used the connectivity of social media as a freeway through which to spread disinformation and propaganda.
Social media may seem like a level playing field, but the fact is that governments, corporations and other entities have the resources and technology to dominate the conversation. Simply put, they can use social media to a far greater effect than activists.
When used correctly, as a supplement to more traditional methods of activism, social media can be an effective tool. But past events show that more often than not, social media replaces more reliable methods of activism. It turns social issues into just another part of a daily feed. It jeopardizes the lives of activists and is more often than not an avenue for reactionary misinformation and lies. Social media is a part of our lives and will remain that way, but smart activists will keep its use to a minimum if they care about the success of their movements.
Social media was invented about 20 years ago, paving the way for a new age of information. Previously, it was only possible to talk to people you knew, either in person, through snail-mail or through newfangled internet mail — unless you happened to own a television channel, a radio show or a newspaper. As social media has democratized information, it’s been adopted by activists across the world as a key part of their movements.
For example, look at Black Lives Matter. The movement started in 2013 after George Zimmerman shot and killed a 17-year-old Black teenager named Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. After a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of murder, a few Black activists tweeted about Martin’s death with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Those tweets started a trend, and the Black Lives Matter movement organically grew up around the hashtag. Since then, the movement has used social media to mobilize around a number of similar murders.
Black Lives Matter’s success has inspired a number of other movements, including #MeToo, the Women’s March and March for Our Lives. All of them have used the same formula: use social media to get out the word and then ask people to engage. All of them have made real change.
A trending hashtag can’t force a police force to commit to race training or popularize common-sense gun reform. However, when marshalled by the right people, a trending hashtag can spur thousands upon thousands of people to join a physical protest who otherwise wouldn’t have known about it. It can drive people to participate in real life, reminding them that their friends, neighbors and family are taking action — and that they should too.
Other examples abound, like activist Charlotte Clymer raising over $170,000 for Elizabeth Warren in a three-day Twitter campaign. My co-columnist spins a tale of internet ‘slacktivism’ taking the place of real protest, but that isn’t the case. Instead, social media spurs physical protest and civic engagement, all while spreading knowledge about political problems ignored in traditional media.
Outside of the U. S., social media is just as potent. My co-columnist brings up the Arab Spring, a period of time in the early 2010s when activists in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region began calling for political change, using social media to amplify their message. Social media didn’t single-handedly call the people of Tunisia and Egypt to the streets. However, it allowed the political questions first asked in Tunisia to spread across borders, spurring people in other countries to ask the same questions of their governments.
Though my co-columnist portrays the Arab Spring as one of social media’s failures, he doesn’t consider the fact that the uprisings never could have happened without social media — and ignores that the protests galvanized Tunisia’s successful transition to democracy.
Now, it’s true that social media has problems. Online misinformation is rampant and disinformation — the intentionally harmful social media campaigns that countries like Russia have perfected — is downright scary. However, these problems aren’t actually caused by social media.
Misinformation and disinformation have existed since long before social media, from Nazi propaganda during World War II to the radio stations that fomented the Rwandan genocide. Even now, hosts on cable news shows readily repeat propaganda and conspiracy theories, sometimes because they believe them and other times because giving these controversial ideas a platform upholds their notion of ‘balance.’
It’s true that governments have adapted their repressive tools to social media. And yes, those tools constitute themselves differently on social media than in newspapers. Our strategies for combatting disinformation in cable news must be different from our strategies for social media, but that doesn’t indicate that social media is any different from other mass media.
Social media, like newspapers, cable news and radio shows, is not perfect. It has problems that I haven’t been able to cover, including the fact that private companies control its content with little regulation, the threat it poses to our privacy and the way it enables dangerous information bubbles. That said, it has enabled unprecedented community activism in the U.S. and abroad. And this activism isn’t meaningless clicktivism — instead, it has resulted in real change for real people.