What is social media activism and why it’s not just “trendy”

Social media has blossomed from a platform that was once used as a new, exciting way to say “hello” into a far-reaching internet landscape. The sharing of the political, economic and social happenings occurring in your own environment or that of others hoping to make a positive impact can be called social media activism, cyberactivism or digital activism (at least those are the terms I have seen circulating). For this post, I will use “social media activism.” 


What is social media activism and where did it come from?

Several articles I have come across attribute the Arab Spring uprisings in several largely Muslim countries between 2010 and 2012 as the beginning of widespread activism on social media. Closer to home in America, the “black lives matter” phrase was first used in 2013 in response to to acquittal of George Zimmerman after he shot and killed a black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The hashtag really picked up the following year when another black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Similarly, the #metoo hashtag was first used in 2006, but really inspired women to share their stories about and support victims of sexual assault in 2017 after The New York Times reported that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was sexually harassing and assaulting women for decades. 

When you think of social media activism, your mind might immediately imagine hashtags like the ones I mentioned above. However, it is so much more. 2020 has been a very busy year when it comes to social media activism. Between the Australian wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the political tensions in the U.S., femicide in Turkey and most recently, the explosion in Beirut, activists have been using social media to get the word out and encourage others to help. Timelines are flooded with pictures and videos of protests to spread awareness. People are finding and sharing relevant organizations to which to donate. Users are creating shareable guides on everything from how to register to vote to how to respond to racists. More content than ever is available to the layperson to help educate them on social, economic and political issues around the world. This brings me to my next point. 


How do people consume their news and why is it important now?  

Consuming the news is important for modern people wanting to stay in touch with the happenings of the world. If people did not care about learning, informative European pamphlets in the early 1600s would not have taken off and led way to newspapers. The biggest difference between consuming news now and the 1600s, or even early to mid 1900s, is how we get it and how we can share it. 

Before the internet, a family may have read the Sunday paper together or sat around a radio or television set to listen to a news broadcast. They might be intrigued with a story and discuss it amongst themselves or friends. Someone might be encouraged to donate to the American Red Cross after hearing a horror story about WWII or to join a march to fight segregation after an impactful photo was shared in newspapers. A person heard the news, was inspired to help and did what he or she could. 

Now, people have the freshest news at their fingertips 24 hours a day thanks to television and the internet. In fact, 33 percent of Americans get their news from online news sites and 20 percent report that they read news on social media, according to Pew Research Center. Both these numbers are higher than the percent of Americans who claim they read their news on paper. Not only is it easier to consume news today, it’s easier to share it—and people think that’s important. A Pew study found that 64 percent of Americans believe social media helps give a voice to underrepresented groups. Now instead of learning information, discussing it with a close group of people and maybe doing something about it as a single person or with those people, all social media users can do that, but broadcast it to a seemingly endless sea of usernames. Hence, social media activism was born. 

Is social media activism trendy?

The short answer is yes. Reading news or about a social issue you then want to discuss on social media is definitely a trend in today’s political climate. However, if you’re saying gathering and sharing news on social media is trendy, you might as well say reading the newspaper was trendy in pre-internet age. A lot of people read newspapers when that was the main form of consumption. Likewise, a lot of people receive news from the internet because that is now the main form of consumption. 

Why social media activism is not just a “trend” and why shaming doesn’t help

As with any trend, there are a huge amount of supporters, but also some people who find issue with it. It’s okay if you disagree with people sharing political, economic or social issues on social media. Some people don’t think there’s a placefor that on such a far-reaching public platform. What’s not okay, though, is shaming others about what they post or how they support the causes they find concerning. Similarly, it’s not okay for you to only like skinny jeans and then make fun of someone for wearing flare jeans. 

I and many others I have spoken to have noticed that there are a tremendous amount of people ‘woke-shaming’ those who decide to support the fight against social issues on the internet . If you post too much, you’re annoying. If you don’t post about a social issue for a few days, you’re fake and never cared about it. If you learn something new and want to share the information, you’re only posting to gain likes and followers. If you didn’t pay attention to a country before, you’re an awful person for only caring now. It’s tiring. 

I also want to point out a hypocrisy I’ve found in this. While people are quick to claim “clout seeking” in regard to social media activism from his or her peers, people seem to hold a different standard for businesses. A 2018 Edelman surveyfound that most consumers want businesses to take a stand on social issues. So, if it’s satisfactory for a brand to be pressured to take a public stance on an issue, why can’t the layperson do so without being attacked?  

Now, I am not saying every person on social media is posting about social issues for the right reasons. We’re human and want to feel good about yourselves. We want to feed our egos. Regardless, it’s very bold of people to assume everyone else besides themselves is posting for the wrong reasons.

Self-reflection questions for a caring ally

Here are some questions I have for social media users who take to shaming as a way to promote change. These are questions that can also guide others in their approach to social media activism.

  1. Would you rather people not care to learn about and potentially take interest in social issues than learn about topics a little later because they heard about them on social media?
  2. Do you know everything going on in every other country other than the one you’re from?
  3. Instead of using your energy to shame people for trying to do the right thing, would you not rather use that energy to sign petitions, donate or share information?
  4. Is everything you post about a social issue you care about?

I will leave you with this quote from former President Barack Obama.

“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people – and this is accelerated by social media – there is this sense sometimes of ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people’ and that’s not enough.”

I will be the first one to say that I have learned about so much going on in the world thanks to social media, and I am so thankful that people share so much eye-opening information. In 2020, I have signed more petitions, sent more emails in regard to social justice, and gained and shared more new knowledge than I ever have. I am proud of younger generations for being so interested in learning about worldly issues, especially because I’ve noticed a lot of older ones are not. I encourage others to click on a post when you see something new and share it if it impacts you. Continue to educate yourself and others, and don’t let internet trolls get you down.


2 thoughts on “What is social media activism and why it’s not just “trendy””

  1. Interesting, eye opening an thought provoking! As one who relies primarily on newspapers, television and radio for my news, I can see that I am undoubtedly missing out on more diverse viewpoints expressed in social media. I suppose that many of us have a bit of extra time available that might be usefully consumed by following social media. I wonder what the statistics might be as to time spent by various demographic groups in viewing social media?

    Thanks for a great article!

    Liked by 1 person

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