In the digital age, a single video has the power to send the world into uproar. Social media platforms are breeding grounds for revolutions, mobilizing people and facilitating the exchange of information and ideas. How has social media affected the nature of civic engagement? What are the positive and negative implications?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement materialized in 2013 in response to the death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. The movement resurfaced the following year in light of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed African-American males whose fatal encounters with law enforcement were widely-shared on social media — resounding the call to end racism and police brutality.
On May 26, 2020, bystanders instinctively whipped out their cellphones to record George Floyd as he was arrested by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Videos of his arrest and subsequent death were uploaded the next day to social media and immediately went viral, sparking global outrage. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has denounced most recently the shooting of 29 year-old Jacob Blake during an altercation with law enforcement in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23rd. Millions have participated in massive street demonstrations of historic proportions throughout the United States and around the globe to show their support for black lives . Yet despite the sheer magnitude of the protests, it appears that a noteworthy portion of civic engagement and discussion surrounding #BlackLivesMatter has taken place not in-person, but rather online.
Civic engagement in the age of social media
There is no single definition of “civic engagement”, but typically it is understood as “individual or collective action to identify and address issues of public concern.” Classic examples include voting, attending town hall meetings or participating in an advocacy group.
As of January 2020, 3.8 billion people actively used social media, constituting a staggering 49% of the global population. Online powerhouses like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter host diverse, engaging, and easy-to-access content for a wide range of audiences.
The nature of social media disrupts the traditional unidirectional flow of information between the media and the public, as users are not only information consumers but prosumers — a term coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in 1980.
Thanks to social media, anyone can produce content and be “heard” by simply sending a tweet, writing a Facebook post or uploading a photo or video. Hence, traditional face-to-face means of civic engagement are now being reinforced or replaced by actions proper to the digital sphere. In lieu of door-to-door campaigning, political candidates are passionately endorsed (or scrutinized) on Twitter. Private community Facebook groups allow residents to share local news and chat remotely with neighbors. Instagram is chock-full of resources addressing diverse social justice issues.
Social media: raising awareness and empowering the voiceless
In 2016, 7 year-old Bana al-Abed took to Twitter to write about her family’s first-hand experience living in Aleppo, Syria during the city’s siege. The child’s tweets, documenting her experience with airstrikes, hunger, and displacement, quickly captured international attention and strengthened civic concern over the war in Syria.
As prosumers, people often use social media to share their experiences or shed light upon issues that are important to them. Greater exposure is lent to a diverse array of national and international issues, prompting conversation and debate and boosting civic consciousness. Social media also makes political involvement more accessible to those hailing from varying educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. According to a University of Chicago study, social media is credited in part for an uptick in civic participation among demographics with little history of political activity, such as young black and Hispanic males. As political conversations are held with greater frequency and ease online, marginalized groups are empowered to speak out and participate in civic life.
Another key component is the interaction between citizens and elected officials. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center, 69% of American adults believe social media to be very or somewhat important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues. Most politicians maintain active social media accounts where they can get a pulse on what’s important to their audiences based on different online social cues, i.e. the number of likes a post gets or the times it is shared.
By giving a voice to anyone with internet access, social media has the power to mobilize those with common interests and generate a strong sense of community.
The coalitions built in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are extremely active online. When the videos documenting Floyd’s encounter with the police were first uploaded on May 27th, roughly 218,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. On May 28th, tweets containing #BlackLivesMatter were numbered at nearly 8.8 million — the highest number of uses in a single day. People similarly showed their support on Facebook and Instagram: on June 2nd, protestors participating in Blackout Tuesday posted a plain black square to demonstrate solidarity against racism and police brutality. Resources are circulated on feeds along with infographics detailing how to talk about racism or how to take legislative action. Citizens therefore use their online presence to make a statement and actively participate in civic life.
Furthermore, action online has the potential to produce financial benefits offline. Donations for civil rights organizations surged following Floyd’s death, with ActBlue raising a stunning $41 million in 24 hours. Money has gone to bailing protestors out of jail, and crowdsourced memorial funds for the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have amassed more than $23 million.
Beware the pitfalls of digital activism
Despite its many benefits, social media on its own cannot sustain social change. Mistaking the political sphere with the digital sphere can be dangerous and endanger the effectiveness of online civic activity in the long-run.
Digital activism is exactly that — digital, and therefore is subject to distinct risks proper to its intangible nature.
Though disinformation has always been an issue when it comes to the news, on social media the threat it poses is heightened two-fold. Online, many seek to misinform the public in order to further their political agendas: for example, in light of the COVID-19 health crisis, Russian operatives are reported to have spread fake tweets falsely attributed to American politicians along with conspiracy theories regarding the virus. Fake news is circulated in order to sow chaos and distrust and influence actual political processes.
In addition, the algorithms used by digital platforms can magnify our interaction with disinformation. For the sake of providing a more “personalized experience”, an algorithm-driven platform such as Facebook will often expose the user to additional false information — compounding societal discord. Moreover, online video-sharing platforms, such as Youtube, are subject to criticism over promoting fake news and conspiracy videos in order to increase the time users spend on the site. This undermines both reliable news sources and effective civic activism. It is vital for activists to be well-informed; however the abundance of fake news online and users’ susceptibility to consume it presents a grave problem for healthy civic engagement.
Furthermore, by only providing users with similar content, these online spaces amplify and reinforce shared beliefs without any exposure to countering perspectives. These echo chambers offer fertile ground for tribalist attitudes (“us vs. them”) not conducive for a democracy based on respectful debate and dialogue.
Polarization engendered by social media only divides people further and stunts real societal change.
Studies show that online interactions allow for ultra-aggressive outbursts (one need only consider the glaring differences between arguing in-person and arguing via a Twitter feed). According to a study done by American neuroscientist Molly J. Crockett, interactions online heighten moral outrage by “magnifying its triggers, reducing its personal costs and amplifying its personal benefits”.
Although successful civic engagement is dependent on community cooperation, social media platforms often serve as online arenas for warring groups to exchange hateful and intolerant language towards those with opposing viewpoints. Such conduct is unacceptable considering that disagreement does not call for bigotry.
Translating online chatter into real-world solutions
Too often political interactions carried out online remain online. A Twitter storm demanding a change in the government budget is useless without tangible efforts to craft legislation. Denouncing racism in a long-winded Facebook post will likely not have long lasting merit when it comes to changing ingrained, racist behavior. It’s true that social media posts act as an effective launchpad for people to start thinking and jump-start plans for action.
Digital activism generates greater awareness and good conversations — but does reposting an infographic on Instagram with a hashtag considered effective civic engagement? Is online encouragement to participate and improve one’s community actually carried out of the digital realm and into reality? The danger, I believe, is remaining in the hypothetical. We have failed if a shared-Facebook post or retweet is the full extent of one’s expression of solidarity.