Social Media: Effective Activism’s Friend and Foe

Black Lives Matter Protest in Manchester, UK — Sushil Nash

Reflecting back on 2020, it easy to characterise this year by the wave of change that has crashed into every aspect of modern life. Mass youth turnout in the general election last month shows that young people are highly invested in issues such as public health, government, and social justice. It is we who are forced to tack the economic and humanitarian mess that is COVID-19 onto our already very long list of things we must clean up.

As Generation Z are faced with the enormous task of dealing with climate change, issues of equality and human rights, consequences of globalisation, immigration, war, peace, et cetera et cetera, alongside the challenges already presented by being an adolescent, growing up, and being in high school or college, this feeling of existential doom can pile up and feel quite overwhelming for a teenager.

So, back in early June, those stupid black squares felt like a nice escape route for many.

“Performative activism” — a buzzword that loosely translates to hypocrite. While occasionally used by online activists to ask followers to reflect on their inconstancies between what they practice and what they preach, too often I see it being used condescendingly by adults to guilt trip teenagers into shutting up. Why? Although no one past the age of maybe five years old is truly authentic, no one wants to appear fake. As a result, if youth feel they don’t have the opportunities beyond social media to engage with politics, they simply don’t. They shut it out and ignore it because it is just easier that way.

Many of this generation’s most influential figures are still under the age of 18 (most notably, Greta Thunberg, climate activist extraordinaire, is 17 years old), and therefore lack the political power to make change through electoral avenues. On the other hand, advocates like Joshua Wong, who has become the face of pro-democracy resistance in Hong Kong, obviously do not have the political representation necessary to successfully and safely lobby for change. Especially around election times, it is hard to feel you are making much of a difference when society glorifies and puts voting on a pedestal as the epitome of public service, while in reality, it should be viewed and be made accessible as a bare minimum for all citizens.

However, this idea of performative activism does hold some credence around the Black Lives Matter movement. More often than not, posting on your Instagram story about why non-black people should not use the n-word is likely to have little effect beyond simply reinforcing information feedback loops, in which you simply reaffirm the same beliefs of your like-minded followers, who are likely to already know why they should not use derogatory and bigoted language. As a consequence, social media users form a false sense of goodness and service, while those who will benefit most from this well-intentioned, albeit pretty ineffective, information, are missed and nothing meaningful changes. Just last week, my feed was flooded with pleas for justice for Brandon Bernard, an African-American man on death row for a crime he committed when he was just 18 years old, yet as we saw, nothing meaningful changed, and he was executed last Thursday.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of online activism, it must not be discounted completely. The popular slogan, “silence is violence”, I believe best sums up this very idea. Posting a black square, signing petitions and showing up to the polls all severely miss the level of action required to enact viable social change, but it is better to see some kind of ongoing support, even if it the most minimal of efforts, rather than silence and brunches and beach photos. The unwillingness to go the extra mile is disappointing, but the ignorance hurts.

So how do we move forward? While it is clear that we shouldn’t throw out social media as a platform for activism altogether, how do we get the ball rolling into 2021, where we can see tangible evidence of change? A silver lining to COVID-19 has been the increased accessibility to meaningful activism that online platforms offer. Social media is actually an invaluable tool for fundraising. Consider putting your craft skills to use and sew masks for your followers in order to raise money for organisations such as The Bail Project, or Fair Fight (Stacey Abram’s initiative working to expand voter access and participation in Georgia). Similarly, looking forward to the upcoming Georgia run-off elections, there are plenty of phone- and text-banking opportunities offered by Mobilize, Swing Left, the ACLU and many others who are fighting to swing the Senate and implement the legislature desperately needed to protect the rights of minorities and give support to those struggling in this pandemic.

Most importantly, start actually talking about the issues that you care about in your everyday life. Be a bit annoying. Call people out for their BS. Be “that” person in the classroom, check-out line, locker-room or park bench who brings up topics like wages, racial and gender inequalities, LGBTQ+ issues, animal rights, climate change, or whatever it may be, because every time you speak up is an opportunity for transparency, and from there grows reform.



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