2020 has been an extraordinary year of upheaval, uncertainty and change.
The Covid19 pandemic has impacted the world and rearranged our priorities; how we work, how we live and how we interact with family and friends. We have adapted to more of life online than ever before, so it may be unsurprising that what we saw online and on social media sent us back onto the streets. But can social media activism on its own be enough?
There is no arguing that social media provides unparalleled reach and momentum that lends itself to activism. For example, the #pride movement has linked LGBTQ communities around the world, in 2017 the #MeToo movement united women from all walks of life and most recently the #BLM movement has ignited people to action, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Not only have notable movements been driven by social media, but it also helps make the organisation of such events more efficient. For example, organisation through online tools is more inclusive of voices that might not be promoted by global media outlets, protests that once took months to organise can be accomplished overnight, information about movement actions can easily be found using #hashtags and it’s easier to follow updates as they occur more or less in real time.
However, there are reasonable concerns about the effects of social media on activism that cannot be ignored. Fostering trust, understanding and change takes time and commitment, which is incongruent in a world dominated by fast-paced social media and a desire for immediate gratification.
Are the “likes”, “follows” and “#hashtags” able to generate deep and meaningful understandings of activism? It seems we can hardly expect audiences to fully understand movements and inspire genuine, lasting change when complex issues and narratives are beaten down into 280- character doses and a few hashtags. Furthermore, an image can speak a thousand words, but with modern editing techniques words and images are open to interpretation, misinformation and fake news.
It seems anyone on social media can express themselves, without expertise, temperament or conviction and join the ranks of, to coin a phrase, “slacktivism”. People are apt to seek out news sources that confirm existing beliefs or share information, not because it is true, but because it is socially trendy e.g. my friend shared it or that popular page shared it – so I will share it.
Social media activism has become more about seeing and being seen, to take part in socially observant gestures of goodwill with no true commitment or sustainability to the movement. A fashionable way of speaking from the soap box, without actually having to do the work and climb on the box.
Participants might connect and pay attention to an issue for a short amount of time, but they often fail to engage fully in the struggle. This was never more apparent than the recent BLM’s #BlackoutTuesday. Instagram and Facebook profiles went dark for the day in solidarity of the movement but it was clear the effort didn’t consult with activists on the ground. It became a social trend, a flood of dark screens and #hashtags that drowned out important information and communications about BLM movements on the ground.
What it ultimately did is it muted the conversation, and in a time when we are trying to amplify our voices, we were inherently silenced.
– Chelsea Miller, a leading organiser of the Freedom March, NYC
There is no argument that people are no longer holding to the adage “accept the things you cannot change”, but are now “changing the things they can no longer accept”, and using social media to great effect to achieve this change. However, true social activism requires people to invest further than a “like” or “share”. It requires dedication, fact checking and ultimately, expanding your mind – changing the way we act on or interpret information and reimagining how we disseminate it.
There are people trying to change the narrative and encourage informed social media activism. Many of my friends and colleagues have started websites or blogs and post religiously on social media about current global issues and events, which promote reliable sources and encourage informed conversations that foster deeper understanding.
The challenge for activists, media giants, news outlets, bloggers and agencies alike, is how to keep everyone listening and informed in the long-term.