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Social Media VS Social Change: An exploration of whether social media activism is harming rather than aiding its causes?

When considering the use of social media for activism, it is important to keep in mind our engagement with social media platforms outside of the political sphere. It is estimated that out of the 3.196 billion people actively using social media, the average time spent on these platforms is 2 hours and 22minutes. That is to say, social media plays a massive role in how we receive information, how we share it, and the means we have to act. As our online lives are only ever increasing, how best can we utilise these platforms for the betterment of society?

One of the most common arguments posed against the use of social reform online is the concept of ‘slactivism’ (a term coined to suggest a passive or lazy approach to engaging with social activism). No doubt social media has affected the way we engage with politics, and not entirely for the better. Most social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are deliberately designed to limit word counts, only allowing for a brief overview of topics. As we move from reading in depth articles and news reports to status updates and retweets, our broader understanding of these issues shrinks. As well as this, social media profiles can lend themselves to self-promotional, lackluster sharing, under the guise of genuine engagement or concern. But do these shallow intentions actually matter when faced with the alternative of total indifference? Ultimately, social media platforms provide those otherwise disinterested in politics a means by which they can remain somewhat active, if only by spreading awareness. 

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Alexander Funcke, in his article Partial Participation towards Collective Action; To Stifle or To Instigate references a theory known as the ‘simple threshold model’, which summarises the effect social media has on our engagement with social activism. The ‘simple threshold model’ explores an individual’s willingness to partake in an activity depending on how many others are willing to partake in the same activity. Studies on this theory include: applause, residential segregation and filling a dancefloor.

What these examples show us about human behaviour, is that there is, to a certain extent, a ‘bandwagon effect’ to every social movement, which motivates people to get involved in social change. Needless to say, social media is the perfect medium for creating this effect, as the influx of sharing, tweeting, posting and liking of other peoples acts of resistance does in fact influence the likelihood of our own action. 

This effect can be as simple as seeing your friend share an article on plastic waste in our oceans, and remembering to bring your keep cup to college. It can be an Instagram story of your friends at a protest, and having a sudden willingness to attend the next one. It can be a tweet about the effects of mental illness on people’s lives, and an urge to educate yourself further on the ways in which you can support friends, or indeed yourself, when faced with the same issues. Big or small, our actions impact one another, and as social media provides for global communication, the trace of our online political footprint has helped pave the way for others to spread awareness and get involved. 

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Recent examples of this include the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, both of which have sparked massive awareness over the past decade. Not only have these movements opened up a discourse across nations, they have also instigated protests and public speeches. That is to say, social media is not just contributing to social activism, it is in the process of redefining activism entirely. Without platforms such as Twitter or Instagram, these hashtag movements would not have gained as much international recognition in as short a time span as they have.

As well as this, many people report that social media provides a microphone of sorts for those whose views are overlooked, with 64% of Americans stating that social media helps give a voice to underrepresented groups. Our words have power, even online, and the circulation of buzz words or hashtags is beginning to prove its place in politics as much as any other form of activism. 

Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New York Times that social media can’t provide what social change has always required, but does this view romanticise past struggles? Gladwell in his article uses the example of four freshman protesting outside the Greensboro lunch counter in 1960’s America as an example of how social media activism is weak by comparison.

He recounts the students’ fears of being harassed or arrested during their protest, stating ‘Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.’ This is where Gladwell’s argument veers into the idolisation of social struggle, rather than an acceptance of our current social/political climate.

Social activism does not have to come in the form of holding a gun. It does not have to entail self-sacrifice or a hero figure. What social change actually needs is collaboration, collective awareness, and unity; all of which online platforms have granted us.

It’s undeniable- social media is instrumental in the way we shape and understand our society. It connects us internationally, providing us with a means of speaking out publicly against global injustices and inequality. If we are to continue sharing our lives online, it is worth exploring how we can use our online presence for inspiring and achieving social change.

 

Caoilfhionn Murphy Ní Mhaolchalain – Features Writer

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