Social media is a recognized home for activism. In the past, it has been utilized to share information, support social movements, organize protests, and even expose violence perpetrated by citizens and state actors.
We have all become used to the call to action in social media posts, whether to donate to a cause, show up for a protest or demonstration, or simply share a well-designed and equally terrifying infographic. But much of the trends of online activism are ridiculed for not doing enough, in what Evgeny Morozov terms ‘slacktivism’ in his book The Net Delusion.
Activism can make a difference
Beyond the changing of profile pictures, hashtags, and the contentious ‘Blackout Tuesday’, it is becoming increasingly apparent that some forms of protest across social media platforms have real-world impacts. This is not something to ignore, with global smartphone penetration at 70% (GlobalData Mobile Broadband Forecast) and the monthly active users (MAUs) of leading platforms climbing into the billions—all coming together to make actions on social media reverberate throughout communities.
There are many well-studied uses of social media in protest and conflict: the 2011 Arab Spring, the 2019 Hong Kong protests, and the rousing BLM protests of summer 2020. Recently, we are seeing the start of social media coverage of the Ukraine-Russia crisis as local citizens upload close-up movements of the Russian military directly onto TikTok.
Those spending time daily on social media platforms are acclimatized to its use as a forum for social and political debate—the movement from pamphlets to posts. The impacts of this activity in the outside world are seen in the organizing of movements and the aftereffects of governmental reactions. The BLM protest, for example, led to multiple police reform bills being introduced in Congress.
As a tool for change, social media is far from perfect
Social media can allow individuals, groups, and opinions into a public conversation that would otherwise have been sidelined, but there exist many issues to grapple with too. Many platforms are the amplifiers of extreme views that plague our communities. The platforms are also under corporate profit-focused control, with algorithms that prejudice what each individual user sees. And where corporations are not leading to harm, governments are. Many nations inspire fear in their citizens’ use of these platforms for protest or altogether censor it—pointing to social media’s failure to assist where it is most needed.
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Another major concern raised by sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci in Twitter and tear gas: the power and fragility of networked protest is the speed at which many online movements take off and are so unable to organize their demands for change with clarity and consensus. Despite the validity of all these concerns, many are successfully navigating the fragile space of online protest. There appears to be much more organization in recent movements, perhaps as a result of the digitally native generation leading them and the growing acceptance of social media data and evidence in court and legal proceedings.
There is no way to return to a pre-social media world, and many communities now live more precariously in the material world than the online one. The only hope now is that social media’s role in protest leads to systemic change and brings us closer to reality, instead of exasperating the fragmentation of communities—which we know it is capable of.