#activism: the new age of social change
Social media is notoriously seen as a place for self-absorbed millennials to post photos of their dogs, food and themselves. But woven in with the thousands of selfies and #ThrowbackThursday’s is a larger network of socially conscious youth using media platforms to elevate their voices and spread important messages. The internet has created a new kind of instantaneous activism, revealing the power of a seemingly meaningless like or retweet.
But it doesn’t come without its skeptics--those who worry about the sometimes passive and insincere nature of media platforms. This slacktivism, so it was called, went no deeper than posting about or sharing issues, and then logging off and returning to everyday life. It was part-time, convenient activism that made users look good to their peers, but made no real change.
In the beginning of social media activism, people worried that it was passive and insincere due to the nature of media platforms. Critics called it 'slacktivism' which was an umbrella term for people who were posting about issues or sharing their friends posts, but their activism stopped when they logged off. People were skeptical of how any real activism could be achieved on social media platforms when they are so instantaneous and update every minute. We are constantly bombarded with information and new posts, and critics were unsure of how any movement could ever be maintained in such an environment. In a speech at Dartmouth University, Shonda Rhimes told an audience that "a hashtag does not change anything, a hashtag is not a movement." The comment was intended to encourage students to put their words into action, but instead intense debate about whether “hashtag activism” really makes a difference.
So – can it?
Alcides Velasquez, a communications professor from Colombia, wrote that social media platforms can “mobilize mass amounts of youth because they are united under the hashtags”. The internet provides a place where people who are angry about or want to change something can create a community around one hashtag. It identifies the cause, and helps people to identify with it, too. Beyond a community, when something is trending on Twitter, it’s virtually inescapable. Since what is said on social media is so widely visible, if there are issues with a company or a politician, they must pay attention to it because, quite literally, the world is watching. So, whilst Shonda Rhimes may have been right in saying that a hashtag does not change anything, it certainly can be the spark that starts movements. The ability for social media platforms to connect and unite people so quickly has rewritten the rules of activism, taking into a new, bold and unchartered territory.
The interconnectivity of social media is unparalleled - information can spread around the world in a matter of minutes, making youth better informed and more in touch with world affairs. With a similar effect, the rise in celebrity culture has helped social media users engage with issues that are brought to light by people with a large following on various platforms. So, when Beyonce posted to Instagram with the hashtag #62MillionGirls as part of Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn campaign, here 100+ million followers were enlightened to the cause. The same goes for any time a person of interest tweets about #BlackLivesMatter or #MarriageEquality.
Psychologist Pamela Rutledge, who has written extensively on the ways social media is redefining activism, points out that more people are able to engage in world issues by simply sharing information around. While critics see this as a passive action, Rutledge argues that it allows people who are removed from the issue to weigh in with their own voice. In the fallout of the election of Donald Trump as American President, youth from around the world were taking a stand of solidarity with those who were afraid for what his election meant. Social media platforms allowed American youth to engage with people in other countries, to see the marches that were held in support and feel supported by the international community. Social media activism may not always be a physical action, but the way information spreads so quickly and easily is changing the game.
But activism is not limited to big movements or protests, and there are many accounts and pages that have created communities to discuss issues, spread their messages, and have their voices heard. Not only are these pages or people activists, but if their followers repost things or share their own experiences, it creates a ripple effect. People dedicate their time to building a following on media platforms and it has become possible for it to be their jobs to be activists. This new age of activism is creating very real movements and inspiring social change.
So, whilst social media platforms have a reputation for perpetuating a 'self-obsessed generation', these sites are actually able to make global connections that pave the way for action and change. It has never been easier to spread information or connect with people on the other side of the world. On social media, everyone has the opportunity to have their voice heard, and there are always people ready to listen.
This is the new age of activism. It is real and it is creating a generation that will not take no for an answer.