When we think of activism or what it means to join the struggle and fight systems of oppression — many of us may initially think of attending rallies and protests. For a range of reasons, there are and always have been folks who cannot attend rallies and protests but continue to contribute and be super effective in standing up for marginalized communities.
In movement spaces, we often use the metaphor of leveraging all of the tools in our toolbox to accomplish our goals. We see attending rallies and protests as one trusty tool in our toolbox. We have a lot more tools in our toolbox, and in the age of social media, we’re constantly learning about new tools and expanded uses of some of the same tools.
This post aims to walk through uses of social media in activism – leaning heavily on examples from movements over the last ten years and pros and cons of using social media in these ways, to create guidelines to shape how we use social media moving forward.
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli
Examples of Activism on Social Media
A few months after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent uprisings across the U.S., young folks across Nigeria took to the streets to call for the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an infamous police unit accused of extortion, extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. The #EndSARS hashtag was effective in raising awareness about police brutality, coordinating protests on the ground, connecting volunteers, accepting donations, and publishing accounts of disbursed funds.
A non-exhaustive list of notable examples include: Occupy Wall Street, #LoveWins, Women’s March, #NeverAgain, #MeToo, Yellow Vest Movement, Ricky Leaks, Lebanon, Chile, Algeria, The Hong Kong Protests, and FarmersProtest.
Resource Hubs + Infographics
Many attribute the timing of the 2020 uprisings during the COVID-19 pandemic to the reasons we saw such a large number of people in the streets – many of them at an action for the first time. As a result, we saw a wide distribution of information around protest safety generated from years of on-the-ground activist experience. Security information included how-tos protecting identities by blurring faces in photos, phone safety including using encrypted messaging apps like Signal and deactivating technology like Face ID, and ways to recognize white supremacist groups. Health guides had content on protesting safely during a pandemic, what to wear and bring to a protest, and defending against tear gas. Finally, civil rights guides dispersed Know Your Rights information about interactions with police and widely distributed the hotline number for the National Lawyers Guild.
Furthermore, the sheer number of people joining protests across the country in 2020 forced many people to confront the fact that they had a lot to learn about racial injustice. While Instagram infographics served as a helpful starting point to sharing information about white privilege, police brutality, and abolition, they also came under fire for not doing enough. This led to a subsequent outpouring of syllabi, webinars, study groups, resource hubs, and Google Docs and Sheets.
Memes have become our way of processing the news online. Memes are a tool for expression and can be instrumental in codifying the message of the movement hereby leading to broader, deeper conversations offline. This accessible and easily shareable medium builds on a long history of radical pedagogy. Benjamin Burroughs said, “Memes help to articulate specific points, amplify ideas, and intensify emotions. Something can be comedic or a joke and still be incredibly poignant.”
Attending an Action
In addition to using platforms like Instagram and Twitter to educate users, some folks broadcast protest experiences, strategize about where the movement goes next, and sometimes provide live updates on protests, marches, and vigils. In the words of Jane Hu, we’ve seen how social media has allowed for the increased “ease and accessibility of protests.” Visualizing information is crucial to creating a clear and authentic narrative for people to emotionally invest in and then engage, and that’s what these platforms were made for.
Contacting Your Reps
We’ve also seen folks engage in the political process more closely with calls to action and templates to email and call your representatives. We can even add a ‘Dial Congress’ Chrome browser extension that turns news stories and Google searches into a congressional phone directory.
Benefits of Social Media Activism
Engagement from a Diverse Group of People
In our last blog post about Indigenous voices on social media, we said that social media “has the capacity to level the playing field and redefine who is an ‘expert’ and gets to speak on certain subject matter.” Social justice asks us to center the most marginalized, so it’s a huge benefit that social media creates space for people that are often disenfranchised in traditional media outlets or educational institutions to create and share content. Similarly, it has the capacity to bring historically ignored narratives into public consciousness.
Disability justice activists have brought accessibility to the forefront of our conversations, led calls for captioning videos + images, and pushed back on folks dismissing the power of social media activism.
Social media provides a pathway for folks to engage from their homes, increasing access for folks who may not share the same privileges it requires to be in the streets (think: concerns about COVID-19, citizenship status, childcare, and more). It breaks down barriers by making translation (think: other languages including ASL) more easily accessible and sharing content visually and audibly. And finally, it increases financial accessibility through free or lower-priced events and resources.
By allowing people to organize events and communicate on a media that is accessible to anyone who has an email address, internet, and some kind of connectable device — this vastly increases potential audience size and speed, and ultimately increases the possible impact creators and campaigns can have. Furthermore there is an inherent decentralized nature in the creation of these movements, and leaderless movements have the added benefits of making them harder to suppress.
Critiques of Social Media Activism
Co-opting a Movement
When a hashtag goes viral, we can expect that not everyone using the hashtag is part of the movement or fully understands what the movement stands for. That said, the widespread nature has the capacity to change or divert attention from how it is initially intended.
For example, #BlackoutTuesday exemplified an increasing awareness of how digital tactics have material consequences. It functionally drowned out crucial information about events and resources with a sea of mute black boxes.
Another notable example is the #8cantwait. In the midst of uprisings about police violence led by abolitionist organizers, Campaign Zero led by DeRay Mckesson launched a reformist platform called #8cantwait to reduce police violence. In response, a group of ten abolitionists launched #8toabolition to recenter abolitionist values and call attention to the differences between platforms.
Slacktivism, or as some folks call ‘clicktivism’ or ‘hashtag activism,’ is a play on the word activism (supporting a political or social cause) that is characterized by minimal effort to engage or little commitment. We are not of the belief that social media activism is inherently bad (see previous section where we list benefits.) That said, when we cut corners or slack on our research, social media activism has the ability to promote an oversimplification of messaging and allows folks to participate from a safe distance.
Similarly, we have the authority to question why individuals and brands engage in a specific social issue. Since the Ferguson uprisings, it has been popular to identify as “woke” or at least be perceived that way. This critique is similar to the previous one, but particularly questions when someone's actions are done to increase their social capital or because of their commitment to a cause. Jordi Betrán Ramirez said, “You have this social approval that comes with posting — we conflate likes and views and follows with value — and so even with people who are of the best intentions, you’re trying to play this game, this algorithm, of social media, while trying to promote something that is inherently not individualistic.” To mitigate this, see our notes on self reflection below.
Threats to Activists
Social media makes it harder for dedicated activists to protect themselves. They are often easily identifiable in pictures and videos online. As a result they face repercussions such as being fired from jobs, increased police surveillance, cyber attacks, and doxing (sharing information like home + work addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information).
Tips to Engaging in Social Media Activism
Do Your Research
It’s important to understand the issues before we begin to share. In our critiques, we shared that misusing a hashtag can drown out crucial information or has the capacity to alter the original message. Misunderstanding a meme can lead to re-sharing something unknowingly offensive or harmful. Know Your Meme can be a great place to start!
Fact Check Your Sources
We know this goes without saying, but not everything we see on social media is true and valid! If you’re not sure what that looks like, start with this CrashCourse video that teaches us how to read laterally, so we can look stuff up and fact check as we read. They reference the following fact-checking website: Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck.Org, WaPo Fact Checker, and NPR Fact-Check.
Cite Your Sources
Give credit where credit is due! A lot of these infographics and IG-friendly decks take time + emotional labor to put together. And some of the content is written based on information from entire books! Let people know where you’re getting your information from — we see it as a way to encourage other folks diving into some rabbit holes.
Avoid Sharing Traumatic Content
This should be a no brainer folks. For one, sharing traumatic content can be triggering for other people viewing this content. In addition, it can lead to the dehumanization of and further harm of the marginalized community you were intending on helping in the first place.
Be Mindful of the Safety of Others
Be aware of who and what you are posting. Unless they have given you consent or are publicly sharing themselves, don’t tag anyone. If you are unsure, cover, blur, or crop out faces. Be careful when sharing locations and geotags. If you have doubts, do not rush to post and consider if there are other ways you can raise awareness online.
Before Posting: Do Some Self-Reflection
You don’t need to prove to a follower that you have the ‘right’ to post something; however, if you’re worried some of the critiques we shared may apply to you, ask yourself the following questions: Why am I doing this? What is my connection to this issue / why do I care? How can I use my resources to best support this cause? Is there an expert I can turn to to learn more or redirect other folks to?
Figure Out Your Long Term Strategy
The only way to fight genuine concerns about Slacktivism or Performative Activism is to engage in the fight for the long-term. Figure out how to spend your privilege, disrupt systems of oppression, and rebuild in community. Mireille Charper shares these guiding questions for us,
“How are you making a long-term impact or affecting change? Can you mentor a young person? Can you become a trustee for an organization that supports the Black community? Could you offer your time to volunteer? Make the effort to do something valuable over a long-term period.”
We’ll close with some wise words from Eve Ewing — “let’s make learning accessible, but let’s keep it accountable too.”