Is Social Media Activism Effective Activism?

Social media has forever changed the way people interact on the Internet. Last week alone, the Presidential State of the Union address included a hashtag on the screen, which people could use to chip in with their own thoughts and commentary throughout the speech, on sites like Twitter and Facebook. News spreads quickly and easily thanks to social media, which has led to the rise of the new phenomenon— social media activism. Though this is often portrayed as ‘lazy activism’, a movement by the new generation that doesn’t accomplish anything, this new wave of involvement in social and political issues through the use of technology has actually led to many successful outcomes—such as creating awareness, leading to conversation on important societal issues, and even influencing political outcomes.

Social media is great for many things, but one that is most beneficial to society is the use of it to bring awareness to issues. Recently, the social media world was taken by storm with the #IceBucketChallenge, a interactive and informational activity in which people could either donate money to the ALS Foundation in 24 hours or douse themselves with ice cold water. With the support of various famous figures like Justin Timberlake, Mark Zukerburg, and Chris Christie, the movement went viral. The challenge easily spread from celebrities to their fans and from the fans to their friends. The movement had no outside push, it manifested solely online because of it’s easy-to-do, easy-to-share, and easy-to-spread nature. And it was effective. As the movement grew more popular statistics show that people were actually growing more aware of the disease. BBC reported that that “average daily visits to the ALS association website were about 17,500 before the ice bucket challenge” and peaked at “4.5 million visits” during it’s prime, of which “83% were new to the site” (Townsend). On top of that, but according to an article by Forbes, the ice bucket challenge raised more than $100 million for the ALS Foundation, a “a 3,500% increase from the $2.8 million that the ALS Association raised during the same time period last year” (Diamond). Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube alone spread awareness for this cause so efficiently that it became ever-present on any social media platform for almost 6 months, and had a fantastic outcome for the ALS Foundation.

Social media also serves as a community where people all over the world can bring all different kinds of issues to light and start to create a conversation. #BlackLivesMatter. #YesAllWomen. These are hashtags that have been very prominent on social media lately because of the heavy social issues they symbolize. Back in 2012, a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by an off duty police officer— and the policeman was not charged. This began the first wave of a movement that pointed out unfair treatment of and unjust police brutality against African Americans in society as people on social media were outraged by the verdict, and race relations in the U.S became extremely tense. Then in 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, and the case was denied a trial. Shortly after, a 12-year-old Tamir Rice walking around carrying a BB gun was seen as a threat to police, and he was also shot and killed. Then, a 43-year-old Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer, repeatedly shouting out as he was dying that he ‘can’t breathe’. #BlackLivesMatter began with these moments as people took their outrage used it to their advantage to speak about racism while the feelings were still fresh. Social media provides a forum where everyday people can post their opinions and experiences, and they can snowball into creating a movement. In an interview with a prominent organizer and activist against police brutality, DeRay Mckesson said that the movement in Missouri would not have existed “if it were not for social media. The intensity with which they responded to protestors very early—we were able to document that and share it quickly with people in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories”. The shareable nature of social media allowed for feedback from the rest of the world “in real time” allowed for regular people to make this story front-page news. It’s true in the past, news would come out in newspapers the next day, and people who didn’t care for these types of issues could just ignore reading that story. News outlets would only cover it for a little while, and eventually, it would be forgotten with the next news cycle. With social media, the issue is ubiquitous and inescapable. With social media, everyone is involved and can give their opinions as the situation is unfolding and force attention to be brought to an issue. Racism in our society is a topic that has been more prevalent on social media than ever before, and it’s led to real talk about race and culture in the media and beyond— a small and first step to ending racial injustice.

Social media activism followed the same route after Elliot Rodgers went on a killing spree at University of California, Santa Barbara. He felt that it was unjust that women weren’t attracted to him and that he was entitled to a woman’s affection, and ended up killing 6 people and injuring 13. This led to the rise of the hashtag #YesAllWomen, which symbolized that, “yes all women” deal with some type of cruelty or inequality from men. This event resonated with women all over the world, and they used this hashtag to bring awareness to sexism in society. The use of social media after this tragedy was quick, efficient, and so effective that many consider it to be the beginning of a “new wave of feminism”. People were able to take advantage of the moment, and direct their frustration and anger in order to raise awareness for the bigger issue at hand while it was still relevant. #YesAllWomen led to conversation that wasn’t happening before and now, efforts are being made both in the White House and the UN in order to give women the equality they deserve.

Though helpful in most cases, social media isn’t perfect and has, on occasion, failed in it’s efforts to educate and aware. Sometimes, the popularity a cause acquires through social media ends up being unwarranted entirely. A perfect example would be effects of the KONY 2012 campaign. Invisible Children, Inc. launched a video in 2012 with the purpose of promoting the organization’s movement to stop the African militia leader, Joesph Kony, by 2012. They created a moving video that went viral instantly, and led many regular people to take to the fight to stop this war criminal. Though a valiant effort for what seemed like a good cause, KONY 2012 ended up as a failure. Main critiques include the fact that he film had given the impression Joesph Kony would be easy to find with the western world’s help. Dinaw Mengestu, an Ethiopian-American writer, wrote Kony was “not a click away”, that the current campaign of awareness, “a beautiful equation that can only work so long as we believe that nothing in the world happens unless we know about it”, “only works in the myopic reality of the film, a reality that deliberately eschews depth and complexity.” Kony and his supporters were actually spread throughout northern Uganda, and soon, it became rather unclear how the money donated to the cause was going to be used. It’s massive appeal to the average people made it a very shareable and supportable cause, but in the end, the cause wasn’t worthy and the people stopped fighting for it.

It’s events like that create opposition and disbelief in the power of social media activism. Slacktivism, a shorter way of saying slacker activism, “generally refers to activities that are easily performed, but they are considered more effective in making the participants feel good about themselves than to achieve the stated political goals”. (Christensen) These types of actions include signing petitions on or joining groups on Facebook. Half of this is true, merely signing a petition or joining a group is easy and doesn’t require much effort on the joiner’s part. But over the years, has been able to make a difference with various issues. With social media, we have the ability to take one person’s hard work and effort for a cause and make it known universally, and actually accomplish something. A major change was getting Verizon to “not charge fees for early termination of contracts if the person has been a victim of domestic violence” (Butterworth). The author of the petition was both “easily understandable” and included a “personal connection” of her own sister facing a $500 cancellation fee after leaving her abusive husband. She managed to get 194,815 people to believe in her cause succeeded in getting Verizon’s cooperation (Aronowitz). With social media, this petition was effective and was more than just a feel-good moment. With social media, this petition actually made a difference, so how could many other campaigns like it be considered negative?

Though many can have different views on it’s effectiveness, social media has proven to have strong a grip on politics, and has been able to influence real political issues time and time again. Since 1987, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia when finally, in 2010, a campaign of civil resistance, strikes, and demonstrations led to the Tunisian Revolution. However, this revolution was unlike many others because of the heavy use of social media in its organization. Tunisian protestors fought back against their repressive governments by hacking into government websites, posting video’s of the protests on YouTube, and creating blogs and Facebook pages to keep the world updated.  The use of communication technologies has been widely credited as the main contributor to the mobilization of these protests and creating the instability that led to Ben Ali’s eventual fall from power. Things unfolded similarly with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that gained momentum after an Egyptian born man created a Facebook page highlighting an instance of abuse of power by Egyptian police. Frustration with the current Egyptian regime spilled onto the Internet, getting the attention of the world while fueling a drive for revolution within the people of Egypt. Though the social media alone did not fight and win the revolution, it did allow for a place where people could vent the outrage “resulting from years of repression, economic instability and individual frustration” and allowed for a revolution to ensue (Vargas). Social media’s prevalence in situations like these has occurred again in Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Libya, and Bahrain and will continue to be an efficient tool used to generate support. Before, a single leader rose to power and led the people to victory. Now, many people, united with the tool of social media, band together themselves and become a force so powerful, they cannot be defeated.

The current generation is considered the social media generation, disregarded for their obsession with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Countless articles on the millennial generation claim that this generation is entitled and lazy and social media makes us so, but this is not the case. Social media has proven to be an effective tool to use when dealing with problems in society and politics, and will only get more efficient as we discover the many possibilities it has.




Works Cited

Aronowitz, Nona W. “Does Really Change Anything?” Dame Magazine. N.p., 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

Berlatsky, Noah. “Hashtag Activism Isn’t a Cop-Out.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

Butterworth, Cynthia. “Verizon: Don’t Make Domestic Violence Victims Pay to Stay Safe.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

Christensen, Henrik S. “Political Activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or Political Participation by Other Means? | Christensen | First Monday.” Political Activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or Political Participation by Other Means? | Christensen | First Monday. First Monday, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

Lister, Tim. “Tunisian Protests Fueled by Social Media Networks.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

Mengestu, Dinaw. “Not a Click Away: Joseph Kony in the Real World.” Warscapes. Warscapes Magazine, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

Reddy, Sumathi. “How The Ice Bucket Challenge Got It’s Start.” Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

Townsend, Lucy. “How Much Has the Ice Bucket Challenge Achieved?” BBC News. BBC News, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Vargas, Jose Antonio. “Spring Awakening.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Feb. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.




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