The times of activism have changed. The internet and social media have brought us a way to see and learn about suffering happening all around the world by just looking at the screens of our smartphones. Social media, especially Facebook (Yilmaz, 2017), provide us contemporary tools for activism and global connectivity. With a few movements of your thumb, you can show support for your political interests, donate money for a cause you believe in, let anyone on the internet know of your opinions, and sign online petitions.
My social media feeds are full of pleas to donate, like and share. I am following a plethora of social media accounts that are managed by non-profit organizations, activist groups, and political groups that aim to push their message to a large online audience. I show my support to these movements with likes and shares, and sometimes my online activities move offline as well – for example, I talk about the campaigns to my friends, or attend events organized by the movements.
In academia, there’s been debate on whether this form of political activism is making us more active or passive in terms of social change. A good review on this debate can be found for instance in Sezen Yilmaz’s article The Role of Social Media Activism in New Social Movements: Opportunities and Limitations from 2017, where she discusses the drawbacks and the potential of social media activism.
The sceptics, on the one hand, see social media activism inefficient or even detrimental to offline activism. The clicks demand a minimum personal effort that might just be a way to make the clicker feel good about themselves and give their social media followers an impression that they support certain movements. Some of the obstacles of social media activism are the lack of commitment, of a collective identity and of strong ties between the participants. Some scholars (e.g. Christensen, 2011) even argue that social media activism is preventing us from attending conventional forms of political action.
Enthusiasts, on the other hand, see that social media is increasing the democratization of activism. They underline that people who were previously excluded from politics now have access to channels of affecting political decision-making processes. The internet can give individuals more opportunities to express their opinions and to organize political formations across geographic or ideological frontiers. The ease of sharing content, e.g. video clips, is also considered an influential element in online activism. (Yilmaz, 2017)
Looking at my own social media activism efforts from a sociological point of view, a few questions sprang to my mind.
Am I one cog in the wheel of social media movements shaping the future of the global society? Or am I just trying to make myself feel good and look good in the eyes of my friends?
I think the answer to both of these questions is yes. Social media activism can be seen as a continuation to the expansion of individualistic values. Wellman and colleagues (2003) argue that the internet has changed how individuals and governments relate to each other. They argue that the internet has created “fragmented, partial, heavily-communicating social networks”, where individuals can connect directly with their governments without the mediation of local groups. Hence, traditional communities are breaking up, and we are moving towards networked individualism. Individualistic values, freedom of choice and independence, are at the same time encouraging us to give as much or little effort as we want and to highlight our identities in activism, but also giving us the impression that the individuals have power to influence the world.
Yilmaz comes to the conclusion that online and offline activism complete each other. This can be seen for example in a recent manifestation in France. The campaign started off with a Facebook video clip of a woman ranting against the French president Emmanuel Macron and his planned tax on fuel. The video clip was viewed more than 6 million times and ignited approximately 290,000 activists, gilets jaunes, to block roads and highways around the country on November 17th. [read more here]
Another good example is the feminist #metoo -movement. The hashtag has generated a global wave of (mostly) women speaking out about sexual harassment and assaults, breaking a long-lasting taboo. The movement went viral in October 2017 and succeeded in showing the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment. The role of Hollywood celebrities was very important – sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, posts from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman, among others, attracted the attention of the world. BBC has, for example, written an article on what has changed in the ordinary lives of women because of the hashtag. [read more here]
In conclusion, social media movements have both important advantages and disadvantages in them. There are cases where social media has played a vital role in changing prevalent power structures, but without offline actions the clicks might serve more as a way to boost our egos than affecting politics.
For more information:
Yılmaz, S., 2017. The Role of Social Media Activism in New Social Movements: Opportunities and Limitations. International Journal of Social Inquiry, 10(1), pp.141–164.
Christensen, H. S. (2011). Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?, First Monday, 16 (2), http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3336/2767
Wellman, B. et al. (2013). The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 8, Issue 3. JCMC834, https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2003.tb00216.x