The Future of Social Media Activism

Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age

For many, social media has been used as an outlet for political debates and online activism. The use of social media platforms has played a significant role in communicating information, raising awareness and making calls of action across countries. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are commonly used to start up political discussions to inform people that wouldn’t normally be informed about current topics by using something coined as ‘hashtag activism.’

Although the use of hashtags is trendy across the web and seen as a pivotal tool in social media activism, many claim that hashtag activism is not effective because it doesn’t do anything outside the digital space and only gives those that promote hashtag activism a sense of being involved without actually doing anything.

As the United States continues to experience President Trump’s administration many people are organizing after so many marginalized groups continue to be targeted and neglected of their rights. Social media has been a tool that many of those groups have used to create movements like the Women’s March which began as a single Facebook group and became a social movement all across the world. After the country continues to experience mass shootings without any change in the countries current gun laws, students and survivors from the Parkland Shooting took to Twitter to organize and create the #NeverAgain movement. Since then, they have organized local and national demonstrations for gun control, confronted and debated with other lawmakers, led hundreds of teenagers to register to vote and ignited a school walkout movement in protest of the continuous school shootings and gun laws in the U.S.

One thing to note is that while the rise of social movements has the ability to create such a huge impact, it also carries an increase in surveillance of marginalized groups in the U.S. Law enforcement agencies across the state secretly have the ability to acquire social media spying software that can sweep activists into a web of digital surveillance.

With cases like these occurring it’s no wonder why the concept of privacy has come to the forefront of citizen and consumer consciousness. While social media activism is becoming an integral part of our society many people aren’t well informed about the privacy risks that the use of social media holds. Social media has allowed activists to organize like never before but it has also made them much easier to track, put their safety in jeopardy and has an effect on the future of social media activism.

Effective vs. Slacktivism

When every opinion piece on social media activism is compared to each other it becomes apparent that the general opinion on it is divided. The truth of the matter is that the potential for social media as an agent of political change has been debated a lot more in recent years. While there are people that believe in the power and influence that social media can have in organizing social and political movements there is also that opinion of online activism doing more to make participants feel good about voicing their opinions and liking posts than actually doing anything to ignite change outside the digital space.

These sort of activities are seen as damaging to the quality of civic and political life as they distract citizens from making more meaningful and important contributions. Activities like these include things like sharing articles on Facebook and asking for change, changing your Facebook profile in solidarity to tragedies occurring in the world, retweeting tweets that include political hashtags and many other cases.

This is what is referred to as ”ethical consumerism” meaning that ‘slacktivists’ are seen as consumers that only choose certain products (actions) because of the labels that they carry and it is the purchase of those products that makes them feel good about supporting a particular cause without needing to follow-up. Younger generations like millennials are mainly seen as ‘slacktivists’ because they grew up in the emergence of the digital age and as a result are accustomed to the mobility that social media bring.

Photo Credit: Matt Bors

While social media skeptics argue that social media is not the best tool for activism, activists argue that social media is very important for their work. Even advocacy organizations seem to think that social media has the power to promote civic engagement and collective action. The internet is seen as having a positive impact on activities of social movement organizations by increasing the speed, reach, and effectiveness of communication and mobilization efforts. As a result, the mainstream media portrays social media as a buzzing hive of useless outrage and think pieces are presenting hashtag activism as vanity activism.

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In contrast to the general opinion, there are social media activists like DeRay Mckesson, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, who take to social media to engage with younger people that want to know how to get involved. He has reported live from protests through Twitter, where his following has spiked from 800 followers to 1 million followers since he began his activism. McKesson also used social networks to raise awareness and to organize, such as creating a text-message alert that informed thousands the instant the grand jury in Ferguson returned a no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown case.

Photo Credit: TIME

In a Trump era, activists are taking to social media to organize and connect with people that they normally wouldn’t be able to if it weren’t for social media. A positive outlook on social media activism spurred social movements like the Women’s March which began as a single Facebook group and became a cultural movement all around the world. Schools shooting survivors like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Delaney Tarr have and continue to use social media and their voices to advocate for gun control. They have publicly called out the NRA’s influence on national politics and shamed politicians in office who continue to accept money from the NRA.

Time and time again we see these activists using social media as a tool of communication, one that is accessible to people that have disabilities that don’t allow them to be active outside the digital space. As a result of the recent spike in use of social media as activism, social media itself is being seen as a very powerful tool as some countries have banned it to prevent revolutions and journalists on the ground are using it to report.

These debates of whether or not social media activism is effective are hot topics among mainstream media but what most people aren’t aware of is the extent to which they are being surveilled online by law enforcements the dangers that it brings to their safety and the effect it can have on the future of social media activism.

Social Media Surveillance

United States

Activists in the U.S are commonly taking their activism to social media to connect with a multitude of people and provide information for those that want to get involved. Ever since the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 revealed that the FBI and NSA that collect information on everyone in the U.S, people have been made aware of their occurrence but most don’t know the extent to which they are being monitored. Given that the U.S is seen as ‘the land of the free’ many would assume that what they preach in the digital space won’t affect them in any way which is why learning about the monitoring that law enforcement’s conduct in the U.S would appear shocking.

A main reason why mass surveillance is conducted is because it is believed to be the best way to find terrorists but mass spying doesn’t stop attacks from occurring. One thing that hasn’t really been reported by mainstream media is the fact that law enforcements have been found to use software that makes protesters easier to locate and target.

Among the reports of a growing number of employers and schools demanding that job applicants, employees, and students hand over the passwords to their private social networking accounts, the ACLU of California has also reported thousands of pages of public records revealing that law enforcement agencies across the state are secretly acquiring social media spying software that can sweep activists into a web of digital surveillance. Softwares like Media Sonar, X1 Social Discovery and Geofeedia are being utilized without any notice.

In 2016, the ACLU requested records from 63 police departments, sheriffs, and district attorneys across California and they found that 40% of the agencies (20 in total) have acquired social networking surveillance tools. There was no evidence in the documents of any public notice, debate, community input, or lawmaker vote about use of this invasive surveillance and no agency produced a use policy that would limit how the tools were used and help protect civil rights and civil liberties.

The ACLU’s records from Fresno and several other communities reveal that some of those surveillance software's have been marketed in ways to target protesters, specifically people of color. People of color have been marginalized for many years now and these software's like Geofeedia are following that by referring to unions and activist groups as “overt threats,” and suggesting that the product can be used in ways that target activists of color.

In one of the emails that was acquired they found that the Los Angeles District Attorney was invited to learn how Baltimore used the software to monitor and “stay one step ahead of the rioters” after the police killing of Freddie Gray. It is apparent that these cases of surveillance carry racist implications and when law enforcement gets to conceal the use of surveillance technology, they also get to conceal its misuse.

On a lighter note, when these acts of invasion of privacy are shed under a light it is possible to change them. The ACLU worked with local activists in Fresno to reveal that its police department was using MediaSonar to identify “threats to public safety” by monitoring hashtags like: #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #ImUnarmed, #Police Brutality and #ItsTimeforChange.

When they were presented with the proof, a diverse coalition of local activists known as Faith in the Valley successfully mobilized and organized to pressure its police department to roll back their social media surveillance programs and now the community is pushing to pass a surveillance technology ordinance to make sure that these software's are being publicly debated.

It is important to note that issues like this continue to happen. In March of this year the State Department announced that it plans to require nearly all of the 14.7 million people who annually apply for work or tourist visas to submit social media identifiers they have used in the past five years. It has also been reported that the FBI is establishing a taskforce for social media surveillance. The public should be aware about how agencies carry and use our data, any policies that govern this surveillance and any tools that they use. Shedding light on these cases is not only a way to inform a mass audience but it also creates change.

A Call For Action

Social media activism will always be debated and split between being effective and slacktivism. The use of social media will continue to be utilized by activists because it is a tool that allows for a fast and expanded communication. While social media can be seen as a pivotal tool to activists they should be aware of the implications of social media surveillance. In the U.S, our digital climate encourages people to proudly announce their political, social and religious beliefs and identities but other countries have more enforced restrictions that can mean freedom or imprisonment for them.

As we see in the U.S people of color will continue to be marginalized and while it is difficult it is also possible to protect your privacy. In order for there to be any change, surveillance must be shed under a light. Stopping discriminatory surveillance and putting control back power in the hands of communities is a priority. There are multiple ways of protecting yourself from surveillance and some of those call for protection of passwords, private web browsing, encryption, not displaying personal information on social media, etc.

But still to this day, the Trump administration continues to ramp up the surveillance on social media. Social media surveillance by the government not only raises questions about free speech, privacy and racial and religious profiling. On May 24, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are collecting and analyzing content from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

The truth of the matter is that the data that is captured through social media makes it much easier for an individual to be tracked by the government and law enforcements. What needs to be recognized is that the internet is perhaps the most democratic communication tool in the world, yet it is being used to unethically collect data from specifically targeted marginalized groups and not informing them about it, thus violating the very same principles of the First and Fourth Amendments in the U.S.

These online venues create spaces for dialogue in spite of government censorship because people will find a way.Social media allow activists to promote their own narrative and this is very important especially when the mainstream media is being controlled by the government.

When it comes down to it, there are larger cultural issues, freedoms, and rights at stake. Freedoms and rights that are entirely critical to the health of democratic political systems, digital citizenry, and global communication, trade, and culture — and their survival ultimately depend on the vitality of a secure and globally interoperable privacy ecosystem.

The vision that we have for policy in the privacy ecosystem as we move forward moving forward must be attuned to these connections, and will ideally emanate from a respect for and desire to preserve the freedoms and rights inherent in the abundance of digital privacy instead of falling victim to the market forces, political abuses, and global policy inconsistencies that threaten their very existence.

Social media is a driver for activism, political discussions and the fight for human rights and it is precisely because of that that we need to ensure that it continues to be a safe space for people to connect about important issues and not used as funnels for a surveillance database that governments can take advantage of.

The fight for privacy in social media will be a long and difficult fight but until then it is important for people everywhere using social media to take precaution, protect their digital identity and know their rights.