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Feature: Praxis.

The Pitfalls of Social Media Activism


By Mar 09, 2017

There is no doubt that social media plays a role in widening the reach of activist movements. For those who feel passionately about a cause or protest, yet lack the time, financial resources, or general ability to attend rallies, protests, and talks, social media serves as an open platform with which to show their support. Yet the accessibility with which one can participate in a cause through social media can have a counter effect, diminishing the rate at which movement members take tangible action in person. When the feel-good benefits of participating in a cause beyond oneself is easily accessible through the click of the “like” button, motivation to leave the house and take action goes out the window for many. Online activism is thus only helpful when it serves as a supplement to meatspace activism, rather than a substitute.

While mass advertising through social media can vastly increase the reach and attendance for activist events, it also means that many users are less discerning in the events they choose to attend and the groups they elect to support.

Characteristic of the information age, the average social media user’s attention span is decreasing--the effects of which change the way users interact with the social movements they encounter online. When the basic details about a political movement or event are immediately accessible, users are more likely to join them without giving it adequate thought.The speed at which social media users are able to access basic details about a political movement contributes to a shortening of their attention spans over time. For example, the user-friendly layout of Facebook events, which are commonly used to organize and advertise protests and rallies, allows users access to the time, date, and location of political events with a single glance. Discovering protests no longer requires personal connections to a movement, nor does it require heavy investigation through an activist group’s website for event details. While mass advertising through social media can vastly increase the reach and attendance for activist events, it also means that many users are less discerning in the events they choose to attend and the groups they elect to support.

Media users’ failure to do adequate research on the movements in which they choose to participate was particularly evident in the Women’s March on Washington, in January 2017. Protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. and at sister protests across the world to stand up for the broader movement toward gender equality. However, the principles and values that users were standing with in attending these marches were far more nuanced than the broad umbrella of feminism. When the leaders of the movement removed a line from their website expressing their support for sex workers in the Women’s March movement, while also openly articulating their disinterest in the participation of pro-life women in the march, many activists were left thinking about the many sides to the coin that is feminism, and who it should include. Yet, knowledge of the principles of the movement seemed to be merely an afterthought to its massive growth in interest, thanks to social media. Feminists were able to access the basic details to attend their local sister protest with a simple click of a button, instantly joining a cause whose principles they were never prompted to read. As social media activists grow accustomed to the speed and accessibility with which they can join a movement, their standards for knowledge of said movement and its core tenets, principles, and leadership diminish.

Neglecting to include radically-welcoming statements leaves many members of marginalized communities out of mainstream activist movements like the Women’s March, hindering their size and potential for change.

In the case of the Women’s March, the onus to know the details of a social justice movement and its parameters for inclusion should not fall on media users alone.Though some social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat limit the amount of information leaders can spread about the movement’s organization and principles, other sites, like Facebook and tumblr, provide ample room for articulating these minute details in mass movement-organizing. The lack of diversity at the Women’s Marches across the world can in part be attributed to poor use of the room provided on social media sites to establish means for inclusivity. Had leaders of this movement taken advantage of the space in event descriptions to state explicitly who the cause supported, represents, and challenges, turnout would have been higher and more representative. Neglecting to include radically-welcoming statements leaves many members of marginalized communities out of mainstream activist movements like the Women’s March, hindering their size and potential for change.

Social activism has become more accessible with the assistance of social media--but this is not without cost or critique. Just as sharing a tweet must not be confused as a substitute for hands-on action, such as holding protests, and attending rallies or talks, clicking the “Going” button on a Facebook event for such in-person events must not be done blindly or without further research into the organization, leadership, and principles of a movement. Further, activist groups whose leadership fails to use social media to make explicit statements about inclusion are limiting their potential size and impact. The onus to properly use social media in facilitating the growth of movements  and inspiring greater change falls both on activist group leaders and members alike.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review or its editors.

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