“Echoes grow louder”: Social media as activism
On Jan. 10, 2017, then-President Barack Obama took to the @POTUS Twitter account to post one of his final messages to his supporters: a call to action.
“Thank you for everything,” he wrote, echoing his farewell address that took place earlier that evening. “My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe — not in my ability to create change, but in yours.”
The tweet had been retweeted nearly 900,000 times by Inauguration Day, and according to CNET, it was Obama’s most popular tweet by that metric on the @POTUS account. In the wake of the 2016 election, which was highlighted by divisive rhetoric and personal attacks from the account of eventual winner Donald Trump, Obama’s Twitter presence provided an open means of engagement between the leader of the free world and his constituents — one that capitalized on his noteworthy connection with young Americans.
As the first president to have a Twitter account in office (two, counting his personal @BarackObama account), Obama learned along with the rest of the world how connecting with supporters on the social network could lead to powerful, meaningful change. His account posted many heavily-retweeted tweets, from his celebratory #LoveWins tweet, on the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry, to one expressing support for Ahmed Mohamed, the Texas boy who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school.
For the president whose winning 2008 campaign saw young people coming out in droves as volunteers, as campaign event attendees, and, eventually, as voters, the connection between their support of Obama and his future success on social media was a natural one.
Obama’s Jan. 10 tweet, later reproduced in part in his final tweet on the @POTUS account on Inauguration Day, was arguably more than a sentimental thank-you to his supporters. Preparing for the sociopolitical resistance that a Trump presidency would necessitate meant that young people needed one final push from their president to effect change — change that, with the rise of activism concentrated on social media, was not entirely out of reach.
Throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, social media’s integration into society was achieved through its use in discussing, planning, and furthering civic engagement: most notably, protest. From hashtags like #OccupyWallStreet (#OWS) and #BlackLivesMatter to the prominent insurgence of social media activity during the Arab Spring in 2011, protesters, citizen journalists, and those watching around the world could participate in the action and share their views without having to be physically present.
Dr. Ben Gleason, assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education, was living in the Bay Area in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street protests — the ones that amplified the myriad systematic differences between the “99 percent” and the “1 percent.” Gleason’s interest in the local Occupy Oakland protest led to him authoring a study on how the #OWS hashtag reached out to its followers.
“I was fascinated by the rise of citizen journalists,” he said. “It seemed to be a new trend at the time that companies like [live video streaming company] Ustream were providing technical equipment, technical assistance [and] training to citizen journalists.”
A March 2017 article from the Huffington Post defines citizen journalism as content produced by people on the ground within minoritized subsets of movements largely ignored by mainstream press: as the article puts it, “All The News They Didn’t, Can’t or Won’t Print.” It not only centers the experiences of active participants in their respective movements, but it also allows them to control the content they release online.
From these dispatches, released from areas like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and from New York at the onset of the fight for a $15 minimum wage, anyone with access to social media could follow these events and actions. Gleason’s analysis suggested that readers and viewers of such content might have a more complex experience than traditional social media users. In categorizing tweets using the hashtag into distinct categories, Gleason learned that #OWS facilitated the spread of a wide range of user-generated content — including videos, hyperlinks, and commentary — that allowed users to acknowledge different perspectives of the movement as they scrolled through #OWS.
While Occupy still faces criticism today from a wide range of sources, stemming from the violence that took place at the camps as well as complaints from those who disagreed with the activists’ motives (or claimed they couldn’t find motives or an end goal at all), the effects these protests have had on social media and the landscape of social protest are unquestionably significant.
“[Occupy Wall Street] was one of the forerunners of Black Lives Matter and more contemporary social movements,” Gleason said, adding that he personally believes engaging with the #OWS hashtag counted as participation in the movement.
The passion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement appears to align with Gleason’s belief. “Black lives matter” as a popular phrase was coined in July of 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. In “a love letter to black people” posted on Facebook, the three expressed their pain upon learning of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin and called upon fellow black people to act. The phrase was turned into the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter by a friend of Garza’s.
When Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014, the #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson hashtags became hubs of solidarity, information, and calls to action. New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb wrote in 2016 that hundreds of people who had never before participated in organized protest came out to Ferguson, taking to the streets to voice their frustrations with the state of racism and policing across the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, hundreds of thousands more used #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter.
“[#BlackLivesMatter] is more than just a hashtag,” said Alejandro Tinajero, a graduate student in sociology of education at New York University. “There are things that a hashtag represents.”
For Tinajero, it is important to look at the science of protest from both an individual and sociological perspective — that is, one of subjective action and one of the practice of being a citizen online.
“The whole of the internet is just a social experience,” he said, adding that he found out about the protests he attended across New York City over Facebook, including one calling for NYU to be declared a sanctuary campus as well as the Women’s March in January. “It’s society on a different medium.”
While Tinajero recognizes that these experiences can be so different that they can be difficult to study, he does believe in the influence of hashtags as a general tool for providing information and, more importantly, sharing personal stories.
“A hashtag is essentially a gateway to history and the lived experiences of a lot of people,” Tinajero said. “That’s what’s so powerful about it.”
Though sometimes, said Brontë Wieland, an MFA student in Iowa State’s Creative Writing and Environment program, it is unrealistic to expect a hashtag to be able to tell the entire story. Wieland and five other students from the MFA program traveled to North Dakota in November to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as the Dakota Access Pipeline construction threatened both the tribe’s water supply and their livelihood. When Wieland arrived at Sacred Stone Camp, he was astounded.
“One thing that was impossible to understand from social media was the sheer scope of the operation,” he said. “Thousands of people set up in temporary housing, plus their vehicles and supplies and the communal spaces, was stunning to behold.”
Wieland had been following the #NoDAPL (“No Dakota Access Pipeline”) hashtag on Twitter as well as reading and sharing posts on Facebook when he and his classmates decided to spend a weekend at the Standing Rock Reservation. Their proximity to the action — the reservation is about ten hours from Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State is located — as well as the enduring strength of the movement eventually convinced them to go.
As with his initial wonderment upon recognizing the extent of the action, Wieland also immediately realized how much he had missed by only following #NoDAPL. Even though it would be unrealistic for every person following the hashtag to be able to attend the protest at the reservation, for Wieland, the differences were striking.
“In a way I’ve never seen conveyed faithfully in words or pictures, looking out over the campsites, with the police and their 20-some massive spotlights perpetually visible on the hills to the north, was awe-inducing,” he said. “Honestly, even after all I read and watched, [when I got there] I felt like I had known nothing.”
But like Tinajero, Wieland’s view of following protest hashtags online is one of hope for future action — that those who participate online will empower themselves to participate in person one day.
“The way I see it, reading is an activism of its own,” Wieland said. “It’s engaging yourself in a state of constant, growing revolution, and good activism branches out from there.”
Near the end of December of 2010, the Tunisian Revolution kicked off a series of anti-government actions across the Middle East and North Africa that would come to be known as the Arab Spring. After the Revolution culminated in the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January of 2011, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt rode the coattails of the successful protests in Tunisia, launching demonstrations, violent and nonviolent protests, and civil wars in order to fight for change in their own countries.
Mohamed Abufalgha, a senior in aerospace engineering at Iowa State and the president of ISU’s Arab Students Association, came to Iowa State from Libya. Throughout his time in Ames, he has spoken publicly about his experiences growing up in the midst of actions dictated not by governmental influence, but by the power of citizens on social media.
“Before the Arab Spring, people were afraid of criticizing the government,” said Abufalgha. “In Libya for example, you can’t protest unless the government tells [you] to do so, and even when they do, people don’t go out, so the government goes to schools and drives students out to the protest.”
This suppression meant Libyans had no legal way to voice their opposition to their government. And with President Muammar Gaddafi not only vocally supportive of former Tunisian president Ben Ali before his ousting, but also committing vast human rights violations in the name of upholding his government, speaking out could prove fatal.
In spite of the fact that only 14 percent of people had internet access in Libya in 2011, social media found a way to aid protesters and citizens alike in spreading their message around the world. According to Abufalgha, they could also keep up with what was happening outside their immediate areas, whether in other parts of Libya or abroad.
“People were able to see what the world looked like and hear what the opposition said,” Abufalgha said. “Groups of youngsters created fake accounts and started preparing for protests.”
By August of 2011, Gaddafi had been captured by militants; two months later, he would be dead by their hand. Officially, the Libyan Civil War would end days after Gaddafi’s murder, but another civil war would break out in 2014 — one that continues to this day.
Here in the United States, Abufalgha feels that the way people use social media for activism is a little different, mainly because the channels of communication are more open, but the idea of spreading news and information is similar. He firmly believes online activism helped people in Libya and other affected countries take part in the Arab Spring.
“Online activism in our time is crucial since it reaches more people in [a] shorter time,” Abufalgha said. “It could be very effective in gathering or encouraging people or just educating them on the issue.”
When the Occupy movement officially began in the United States in late 2011, American protesters benefited from the blueprint of these successful protests. Numerous articles in the mainstream press detailed the rise of the action on social media, including a Reuters piece from that October that tracked how the Occupy hashtags gained momentum so quickly. As it happened, the Arab Spring provided more than inspiration from afar — it provided a path for future success in the sphere of social media as activism.
Although Occupy began to wind down considerably by early 2012, mainly due to mass evictions in “occupied” public spaces, the protests that erupted after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in August of 2014 provided a bridge between Arab Spring activists, protesters on the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and those marching every day in Ferguson. Not only did Egyptian and Palestinian activists repost videos and photos posted to Twitter from Ferguson, but they were also able to provide practical advice when Ferguson police officers started deploying tear gas at protesters.
One protester in Palestine, Mariam Barghouti, took to Twitter to tell the world the same “made in USA” tear gas canister shot at her by Israeli forces days before was also being used in Ferguson. She instructed that those teargased should use milk or Coke to wash the toxic liquid out of their eyes, and reminded them not to touch their faces in the interim. Another Palestinian activist, Rajai Abukhalil, replied to Barghouti’s tweet, adding that protesters should not use water to wash out tear gas. Both sets of tweets were retweeted several hundred times.
“I know it sounds corny, but struggles are actually connected,” tweeted Bahraini activist Maryam Alkhawaja using the #Ferguson hashtag. “At least in regards to weapons used.”
In an Instagram video posted on Aug. 12, 2014 by Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce, the nature of the Ferguson protests not only evoked images of the conflicts abroad, but also formed a critical connection between them. While citizens of western countries tend to define the Middle East and North Africa by the scope of their various forms of unrest, the man in Pearce’s video screaming at Ferguson police officers linked the notoriety of those protests abroad to Ferguson in a few short words:
“You gonna shoot us? You gonna shoot us? Is this the Gaza Strip?”
In his 2003 paper, “Civic Learning in Changing Democracies,” W. Lance Bennett, professor in political science at the University of Washington, presents a model outlining two types of citizens: the dutiful citizen, who uses mass media to get information and views voting as the ultimate form of civic engagement, and the self-actualizing citizen, who favors community action, sees themselves as an individual with a purpose and who today would use social media to obtain and disseminate information.
A common rift that arises when social movements find a home online is between those physically present at protests and those following along on social media. The latter group, whether separated by distance, disability or a host of other reasons, finds itself at the disparate end of a protest hierarchy that values those who can act in person or otherwise show direct engagement. Pejoratively, this second group is referred to as “slacktivists.”
“I think that we have so many larger social challenges, and to deride people’s ways and forms of participating online is unfair,” Dr. Gleason said. “I don’t think [the term ‘slacktivism’] is accurate.”
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science and one of the leading researchers on slacktivism, argued in a 2014 New York Times op-ed that actions such as liking something on Facebook “can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ — perhaps among the most important levers of change.” According to Tufekci, this is why some governments try to suppress social media use during times of ongoing protest.
While the Libyan government curbed internet access and controlled protest prior to the Arab Spring, Abufalgha said the subsequent uprising did enough damage to combat this suppression.
“Online activism helped educate people for the Arab Spring,” Abufalgha said. “Songs and posts and articles criticizing the government spread so quickly and the regimes couldn’t control it anymore.”
While they acknowledge the role of social media as a tool for organizing, graduate students Wieland and Tinajero do see issues with the effects of slacktivism if it goes unchecked. Both, however, also believe slacktivism is sometimes too simple to not engage in from time to time.
“I see [slacktivism] all the time on my Facebook feed and I feel myself slipping into it frequently,” Wieland said. “Especially on Twitter, when I see something, retweet [it] and feel like I’ve done my civic duty.”
Added Tinajero, “From a personal perspective, I see people doing this as a means of saying that they care, and showing their social world that they care and they believe in these things, but they aren’t really willing to step up.”
But as in the offline world, social media is a complex system of varying ideas, information, and media that requires the right connections in order to learn how to move from a repost or shared article to concrete action. And while Tufekci believes the tools exist to change rallying concerned individuals online into a tangible, real-life impact, she isn’t sure the world is fully there yet. However, actions like crowdfunding — amassing real money for real causes online – are one way to get there.
“It’s important to know where to find the difference between slacktivism and online activism,” said Wieland, citing crowdfunding as a legitimate means of people aiding Standing Rock protesters from afar. “I’ve seen online activism move mountains and organize hundreds of people and more.”
In the end, added Wieland, taking action in person isn’t for everybody, considering physical limitations or a general lack of interest. But considering the change already effected using social media as a driving force — or at least the means to create such a force — there is likely no action too small to at least send a friend in the right direction.
While some might view the growth of the internet and the mounting prevalence of social media as a spectacle that actually functions to limit the world people cultivate for themselves online, evidence to the contrary comes in multitudes.
“[It’s important to] consider any and all efforts to participate in any kind of social movement, social change, society in general, as a net positive,” Gleason said. “I don’t understand the need to devalue and delegitimize people’s participation because it happens through digital means.”
Amid the rise of hashtags, retweets, and Facebook shares, the role of social media as a medium for mass communication has changed drastically in the past ten or so years. And the future, as advertising executive Robin Wight told the Like Minds conference in October of 2010, is social.
“With social change, a lot of it, I think, is an echo chamber,” Tinajero said. “But echoes grow louder.”