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Feature: Praxis.

Social Media as Tool for Meaningful Political Activism

By Mar 09, 2017

The advent of social media has allowed for an unprecedented ease of information distribution. The versatility of social networking sites means one can connect with broad audiences, whether it is through the low commitment of the 140-character count on Twitter, the visual-audio attraction of Instagram, or the accessibility of Facebook. The causes of organizations can be made entirely evident via 30-second videos that can be shared by millions of users. There are few members of the population that an activist is not able to speak to. The speed of information dispersal in the age of social media means reaction is close to instantaneous. The effective dissemination of information by social media has contributed to the phenomena of social media activism, where political initiatives are rapidly spread among users through the internet.

“Social media activists” may be defined in this article as anyone who uses social media to further socio-political interests. Activism was traditionally limited to those who organized in the streets or went door to door to acquire signatures for a petition. It is due to the widespread use of social media that activism is no longer restricted to organizations or prominent figures with a voice. Lobbying against companies can be done online without ever stepping outside. Activism no longer requires the extensive planning and often difficult picket-sign lobbying in its traditional form of organized protests. Due to the nature of the internet, activism is able to expand its definition to those who are continuously sharing links, petitions, and other web materials to promote their political interests. People are able to join the protests easily through hashtags or changing their profile picture. Anyone with access to the internet may become a social activist and have their voice heard.

Perhaps the most significant part of social media activism is the ability to translate discourse into action. The large protests of the previous years have all been organized through various social media sites. Notably, the Women’s March on Washington was organized through a Facebook event by women with no previous acquaintance. Three prominent female activists had separately posted about a possible women’s march contesting President Trump’s inauguration. They joined together, recruiting other activists to organize the massive event. Subsequently, tens of thousands of people indicated their intention to attend through an RSVP to the Facebook event, and it eventually spawned hundreds of supporting marches around the world. The event successfully roused the interests of a population, mobilizing upwards of two million people in a mass protest. Specifically, the causes of the march were able to be widely understood and available to anyone. The accessibility of social media allows a broad support base that will ultimately prevent such a movement from being ignored.

Anyone with access to the internet may become a social activist and have their voice heard.

Additionally, social media frequently provides a means of identification. With the use hashtags, users are able to easily identify with movements. The most prominent example is the prolific use of the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) hashtag in its battle against police brutality and systematic racism. While the movement consists of decentralized chapters across the United States, the tag remains a symbol of solidarity for all. Similar hashtags were used in boycotts against the Hudson Bay Company (#GrabYourWallet), for the removal of Ivanka Trump’s merchandise and Uber (#DeleteUber), for its CEO’s participation in Donald Trump’s advisory board. These tags allow posts to be categorized, making it easier for audiences to follow the events. Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company issued a statement regarding the boycott and Uber’s CEO resigned from the advisory board. While adding a hashtag to a tweet is a small action to take, it certainly leads to prompt responses.

The saliency of the Black Lives Matter movement also demonstrates the force of a social movement largely based on networking sites as an alternative voice for the oppressed. While mainstream media may refuse to include particular events in its publications due to political alliances, tensions, and corporate restrictions, a movement independent of these confines may express itself freely. The death of Travyon Martin, the murder that sparked the movement, was scarcely covered in mainstream media until a publicist urged big outlets to take up the story. Following Martin’s death, subsequent injustices undertaken by the Black Lives Matter movement were shared through social networking sites under the hashtag. The mainstream media’s failure to address white supremacy, and in the process its criminalization of Black victims, led voices on social media to become a credible source of information.

Similarly, a recent blog post by a former female Uber employee exposing its systematic discrimination against women launched an investigation by Uber’s chief executive. The blog post, which detailed incidents of sexual harassment by upper management and dismissal of concerns by human resources, resonated with many female employees of the tech sector and exposed a larger problem of sexism within the industry. Uber is among many large corporations with a significant influence and it is easy to see why any media outlet would be unwilling to take such a story. The blog post, that was shared thousands of times on Twitter, gained traction once it was supported and echoed by other female employees that have since left Uber. Independent bloggers who have large followings are able to instigate change through their perspective’s ability to connect with their audience, unlike op-ed sections of news outlets, where writers might be restricted or filtered by editors and combatted by audiences who disagree.

The mainstream media’s failure to address white supremacy, and in the process its criminalization of Black victims, led voices on social media to become a credible source of information.

The evident problem of tokenism may also be observed in the superficiality of social media activism. Since the difficulty of becoming a social media activist is so low, it leads many to wonder how active participants are willing to be offline. However, the value of social activism is not the long-term commitment of a campaign or monetary donations, as is the case with traditional interest groups. It is the ability to start a conversation on otherwise ignored topics, to spread awareness among communities. It is a movement that is not dominated by few voices, but by all. It is vastly different from governmental debates and lobbying in its form and effect. This availability of information has certainly precipitated action from online users.

Social media activism has certainly grown into a crucial part of impactful political praxis. Politicians maintain active Twitter accounts, and online petitions are regularly shared amongst networking sites. The political-left places importance on the disenfranchised, who may find social media as the only effective way to participate in political life. Social media has allowed minorities to affect change on their own terms. It has allowed information unbiased towards the dominant group. Social media activists recognize the potential of online organization, and while there are questions about the authenticity of unfiltered voices, the speed and outcome of such a method are empowering.

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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