It’s seven in the morning on a school day. You should be getting out of bed, but you don’t quite feel like it, so you reach for my phone and start scrolling through your notifications. You open, but don’t read the daily briefing from NYT: you dread tangling through sophisticated vocabulary and long editorials, even if deep down, you know you need to educate yourself. Instead, you either open Instagram and swipe through your stories, or go on Twitter and look at the trending hashtags. Today, in less than ten seconds, you learn that Tsai Ing-wen wins the primaries in HongKong in a landslide, Julian Edelman is arrested, and it’s 67 degrees Fahrenheit in Southborough, Massachusetts in the dead middle of winter. Which, as the caption puts it, is “absolutely ridiculous.”
Social media was how I first learned the Amazon was burning (#PrayForAmazonia). When Kashmir went into lockdown, social media spread the news. Throughout the last decade, movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Arab Springs, BlackLivesMatter, and MeToo have all taken advantage of social media and the internet to mobilize people, organize protests, and raise awareness for their separate injustices. With a shift from television and broadcasts to social media, a new form of activism named social media activism has taken root. Utilized correctly, it can allow Generation Z youths to advocate for change in incredibly impactful ways.
Social media activism is a branch of media activism, activism that focuses on using media and communication pathways to stimulate social and political movements. While the presence of media activism can be traced back to anti-Vietnam war protests and the 1960s, social media activism is much more recent, beginning with the development of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Forms of activism range from starting one’s movement to simply spreading the news about an event that mainstream news channels are not reporting. Famous social media activists include the Parkland students (#MarchForOurLives), Greta Thunberg (#ClimateStrike), and Tarana Burke (#MeToo), people who started incredibly powerful movements that still influence American politics. On most social media platforms, there are also accounts specially dedicated to advocating and educating users on social justice issues and historical oppression.
While it has been nicknamed “slacktivism” in the past, social media activism does work to an extent. Critics of social media activism cite the frequent inability for people to keep traction for a movement or point out the self-indulgence of members who retweet or share then move on. However, a study by Pew Research Center shows that 69% of Americans believe social media is an effective way to direct politicians’ attention on important issues, and 67% believe it is essential for creating social change. Social media activism is seen as “the first step in a ladder of engagement,” but it is a crucial step for many who would not have the power to do so otherwise. From rainbow flags in profiles to actively posting about issues, social media has become a platform for underrepresented and minoritized groups to broadcast their independent activism. In countries without the freedom of the press where activism rarely receives coverage, social media may be the only way to send messages out. I can barely find information on the Bloody Brides Protest in Beijing against domestic violence and Marriage To A Blue Sky arts demonstration for air pollution awareness on the Chinese web, which does not surprise me. Without social media, movements could not connect with and inspire each other the same way #MeToo inspired #KuToo, or #NotOneMore connected with #MarchForOurLives.
Social media has changed the face of activism. Fortunately, it has made it easier for individuals to protest and advocate for social justice issues. Compared to the hierarchical protests of the 1960s and 70s, where people gathered under figureheads such as Martin Luther King Jr., current protests are more network and community-based. Instead of adhering to a specific organization, activists now operate on an individual scale with greater freedom. For Generation Z activists, most of whom are still in school, social media activism is one of the best ways to protest and have the message reach as many people as possible. Even though this branch of activism has its downsides, its accessibility and networking opportunities enable youth activists to speak out about the causes they believe in. Many have already taken advantage of its power; younger activists advocate for their cause on a global scale daily. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago, few had the potential that we now all have. Generation Z activists are going to change the world, and social media will be a core part of it.
Featured Image via Pew Research