Social Media Activism

Information doesn’t go far without people to use it

The current time period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Digital age’, where many tasks of life are lived out online. Aspects of society, such as social activism, that were once done ‘the old fashion way’ are now being revolutionized at the hands of technology. The internet, or more specifically social media, is changing activism.

In an article published in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”, Malcolm Gladwell addressed the limitations on using social media exclusively for activism.

In his Atlantic article “The Hive”, Marshall Poe discussed the abilities and strengths of internet community and collaboration.

For a movement to be successful, it requires a few components. First, the information has to get out, preferably to as many people as possible. Then that information must be delivered in such a way where it creates a strong emotional reaction in people. Lastly, those people need to go out into the world and protest, boycott, or actively work to change the system in other ways. Activism through social media alone does not create social change, it doesn’t have an organization structure strong enough to challenge deeply ingrained social structures. Yet, social media still plays a role in activism. It is a useful tool for spreading information that sets activism in motion. Boots on the ground organization and social media together are needed to create a successful change in society.

Following the Leader

In order to challenge well ingrained social norms and institutions, like racism for example, precise strategy and organization is crucial. If the system you are fighting has a well established and strong organizational system, it is important to be able to match that with your own movement. You need to have people who can delegate resources and organize protests. If too many people are trying to be in charge, nothing gets done. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparked by

the arrest of Rosa Parks when she refused to get up and move to the back of the bus for a white passenger. This protest was entirely planned and orchestrated ahead of time by members of the NAACP, knowing that in order for the movement to be successful they needed a public face that triggered the correct emotions. Not only was strong leadership needed to plan the boycott trigger, but it was also necessary in order to keep participation strong. Leaders were needed to ensure that there would be adequate coverage of alternative transportation for protesters at all times throughout the movement in order to keep off the buses entirely and portray a strong message. This use of social activism was very effective.

There are other uses of activism, like through social media, which are less effective. Social media like Facebook is not adequately structured for organizing effective activism movements. To do that one needs a well organized and disciplined hierarchy, of which Facebook doesn’t have. Facebook is setup to build networks, as Poe wrote regarding online communities,

“anyone could contribute, all of the content would be made freely available” (Poe, 7)

A network is not governed by a central authority like a hierarchy is. It is instead governed by consensus from the entire group. Without a central authority, it is extremely difficult to organize precise strategies for protesting a movement for social change. This is because when difficult strategic decision making is left up to consensus of a large group, it is more time consuming and difficult to get every member on board with a single plan.

Social Media can still be useful

While lack of central authority is not conducive for creating and running a successful activist organization, it can be a useful tool for activists to spread their message to other people. The ‘free for all’ platform of the internet is an excellent tool for getting information out to a large amount of people. Those people who may not have been aware of a social issue, or couldn’t access the resources to deal with it, can access information through the internet. This information can spark an emotional reaction, strong enough to get people to actively work towards change. In his article, Poe states,

“Given the right technology, large groups of self-interested individuals will unite to create something they could not produce themselves” (Poe, 4).

Sites like Facebook and Twitter can get information out to a vastly greater number of people than any other form of communication. If more people are aware of an issue, there is more likely to be a greater number of people who want to change the problem, simply because there is a larger population pool to start with. With social media, information spreads faster than ever before, allowing even more people to come together and create a better world for themselves.

The People and Twitter working together

A time where social media was a tool used to spread information that would otherwise not be shared was December of 2011. Which marks the start of what has come to be known as the Arab spring. The Arab spring consists of a series of popular uprisings across middle eastern countries. The growth of a generation of people with near constant internet access, set the stage for the mass protests that spelled the end of oppressive dictatorships. In order for these uprisings to become a reality, large masses of the population needed to be able to access information about unrest and discord in other countries. This information was shared between individuals through social media. In his article, Gladwell speaks on the power of social media when he states,
“With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns” (Gladwell, 2).

The Arab spring started in Tunisia and during their protests they would chant a song written about the revolution by a Tunisian musician. This song was shared on Youtube all over the world and the Middle East, later in the Arab spring it was also chanted at the protests in Egypt. That song is information that was shared over social media from Tunisia to Egypt, which created an emotional connection in individuals in Egypt. This emotional connection led the people of Egypt to chant this song in protest to their government. The information [chant] shared through social media created an emotional reaction in Egyptian citizens. This emotional reaction, along with years of social unrest, lead to fierce protesting and clashes between the people and their government. While social media alone did not create change in Egypt or Tunisia, the information spread on social media helped to ignite the spark to act.

Information + Emotion + Action = Change

Information of injustice creates an emotional response which leads to social activism, and that action creates a change in society. Every step of this chain must be present to result in change. Without action, there is only information and people who are upset over it, but no one does anything to change it. Without information, there is no knowledge of the issue so no one knows to act. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are phenomenal communication resources for the spread of social information. They have shown to be useful tools in spreading activist movement information to the greater masses. Alone though, social media is not enough to create social change. There have to be people out in society writing letters to Congress, boycotting, and other such actions in order to create a lasting change. Social media is a valuable resource, but it’s the people who must be willing to do the work to make their world a better place.

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 08 June 2016.

Poe, Marshall. “The Hive.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, Sept. 2006. Web. 14 June 2016.