Igniter of Social Activism

  • Column A: Activism/Advocacy
  • Column B: Facebook
  • Column C: “Research shows how one devastating image totally changed how we talk about the refugee crisis”

As citizens in the new media era, we have access to a vast array of multimedia platforms which provide a public outlet for our thoughts and opinions. We are able to easily express ourselves in the form of words, photographs, and videos at an extremely rapid speed. This heightened “shareability” creates connections with people from around the world.

Multimedia Platforms

More specifically, Facebook has been recognized by scholars such as Merlyna Lim to be a “tool and space in which various communication networks that make up social movement emerge, connect, collapse, and expand.”

This lies at the core of what I will be discussing because although many critics have claimed that Facebook only induces ‘slacktivism’, it is actually demonstrated that social media and social activism are not separate entities.

Instead, through an analysis of the paralleling relationship between Facebook and full-fledged activism, while also studying the powerful effects that Facebook had on oppositional movements in Egypt and the Syrian Refugee Crisis, it is realized that they harmoniously work together and establish what Nadia Oweidat describes as, “[the linking ] of online activism with street activism.”

Thus, what is often glossed over is that a multitude of awareness is often garnered and accumulated through social media. This is then translated to the greater possibility of evoking change.

Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, and Gamal Abdel Nasser are having tea in the afterlife. Mubarak asks Nasser, ‘‘How did you end up here?’’ ‘‘Poison,’’ Nasser answers. Mubarak then turns to Sadat. ‘‘What about you?’’ he asks. ‘‘An assassin’s bullet,’’ Sadat says. Sadat and Nasser then turn to Mubarak, ‘‘And you?’’ To which Mubarak replies: ‘‘Facebook.’’

This joke that was circulated following the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 is not only comical; it accurately pinpoints the prominent role that social media can play in the realm of political activism.

For a long time, Egyptians were faced with “longstanding grievances concerning corrupt and oppressive government” (Lim 234).

Egyptian Man in Cairo Slum

In the pre-internet age, the frustration pertaining to these injustices was not enough to create a social movement because as “individuals only participate in collective action when they recognize their membership in the relevant collective” (Wright 2001). Facebook was able to fill this void as large numbers of civilians were brought together with a common pursuit for democracy. This allowed for the “formation and expansion of networks that the authoritarian government could not easily control” (Lim 244).

Online activism soon translated to offline protests as millions of people who connected through oppositional groups on Facebook gathered in Tahrir Square to protest against the dictatorship, and was eventually successful when Mubarak resigned.

Tahrir Square Protest 2011

This would’ve been unimaginable in the pre-Gutenburg era, where independent thinking was scare as the voice of the church was the only trustworthy source of information. Though they were reports of corruption in the church, it was almost impossible to reveal truths and overthrow injustice.

Furthermore, Facebook’s ability to propel change was felt again when the devastating photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was rapidly shared through users’ newsfeed. In the article “Research shows how one devastating image totally changed how we talk about the refugee crisis” , Mohdin explains that “the image had a huge impact; it appeared on 20 million screens around the world in just 12 hours.”

A collective action was then spurred as the Syrian Refugee Crisis was humanized and not only changed the “language used on social media” but induced the “refugeeswelcome” hashtag and placed an immense amount of pressure on European governments to accept more Syrian refugees.

Evidently, social media — in particular Facebook, is undoubtedly an igniter of social activism.


Lastly, as citizens in the new media era, when we hear critics claim that Facebook and other social media sites only lead to the inhibition of policy change, we should keep this in mind …

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then, crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

… before we put a definitively negative label on social media.

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