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  • Isabelle Coates

Social Media Activism: The Positives and Negatives

Isabelle Coates dives into ‘slacktivism’, black squares and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, questioning if people post on social media about social issues to appear a certain way rather than in pursuit of real action. She also highlights its benefits and how it’s far reaching messages can affect real change.

Artwork by Alison Laing (Instagram: @alisonlaingart)

Image description: Everyone is confused when it comes to social media activism, what will actually help the cause, are we passively showing support... its a confusing subject to wrap our heads around. The figure here is surrounded by collage, ink swirls, and watching eyes, but they raise their hands to their face to block out the mass amount of information around them. They are trying to see clearly in their environment where they can barely distinguish their path forward. Just like the person in the painting, we must attempt to forge the right path and understand what step forward is doing the best for our cause.

Most people will probably remember the ALS ice bucket challenge. It became popular when I was a naive thirteen year old in the throes of my first engagement with social media. Like all of my friends were doing, I filmed myself pouring a bucket of cold water over my head, posted it online encouraging three of my friends to do the same, and then promptly forgot all about it.

Whilst I vaguely remember knowing that ALS was an illness, it was only years later that I understood that ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is a seriously debilitating neurological disease that affects the nerve cells controlling voluntary muscle movement, progressively causing the loss of control over voluntary movements. The intention of the ALS ice bucket challenge was therefore not, as my thirteen-year-old self thought, to create a hilarious video of yourself and post it for the amusement of your friends. Instead, it was to temporarily experience the muscle stiffness experienced by ALS sufferers by temporarily submerging yourself in icy water

Now, almost 10 years later, and living in a world far more steeped in social media and online content, I can’t help wondering whether everyone engaging in social media activism actually understands the issues they are posting about, or whether they, like my younger self, just want to join the trend. As a generation, we are constantly bombarded with online content and creating content of our own and it is somewhat troubling that posts about activism can be scrolled past in the same way as the customary barrage of pictures of nights out. Social media platforms themselves are used as arenas for relentless self-promotion, within which posts promoting activism arguably lose some of their impacts. Furthermore, the sheer amount of media we consume on a daily basis conditions us to quickly move past content. This raises the issue of the longevity of people’s engagement with online activism and therefore, the sustainability of social media activism.

Social media activism has also been criticised for what is known as ‘slacktivism’, a term defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the self-deluded idea that by liking, sharing, or retweeting something you are helping out”. This refers to social media users sharing content without necessarily fact-checking or understanding it, out of a short-lived desire to appear a certain way and relieve their consciences rather than be motivated by a longstanding desire for real action.

Other issues with social media activism came to light in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The hashtag #BlackOutTuesday began in the music industry, aiming to bring the industry to a halt for the day as a gesture of solidarity. Major music companies such as MTV, VH1 and Spotify added various moments of silence throughout the day and featured ‘blackout’ designs. However, the day also attracted major criticism, many pointed out that since new music is typically released on Thursday/ Friday, the silent Tuesday required little sacrifice from the industry and was more of a PR stunt than a commitment to real change. Many labels were also criticised for releasing generic statements pledging solidarity rather than outlining plans for action. Furthermore, as the movement spread to social media, many users posted a black square, often with the caption #BlackLivesMatter. This also drew criticism from activists, who could no longer use the hashtag in order to circulate information and updates; they found the hashtag saturated with blackout squares. These posts have been criticised as substitutes for meaningful action, with critics noting that there have been 28.5m Instagram posts using the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag compared with 13m signatures on the petition calling for justice for Floyd.

However, there are many examples of the successes and benefits of online activism. For example, social media can act as an equalising force; it allows those excluded from spaces of privilege like politics or academia to engage with different issues and access resources. Especially during the pandemic, when the majority of people were incredibly physically restricted in activism, social media allowed people to still engage with protests, even if not in person. It allows for the quick circulation of material so that movements can grow, individual posts can quickly go viral, and other actions can be encouraged. For example, the Hawaiian grandmother whose tweet expressing her outrage at Trump’s election sparked the women’s march movement in which an estimated seven million people attended marches across the globe.

Thus, there is the hope that as a generation we are learning how to be better social media activists and understand the consequences of the digital tactics we use. There is a growing understanding of strategies that can be used in online activism: the mass circulation of email and phone templates to use to contact people in power, google docs with lists of resources, webinars on how to inform yourself, and the use of hashtags to compile updates and relevant information to name a few. As New School politics Professor Deva Woodly states, the recent social media outcry over BLM demonstrates the growing understanding of social media activism’s ability to create “the headline”. Whilst Woodly acknowledges that online representation can never substitute for concrete action, or represent the depth and nuances of issues, the social media format helps “codify the message”, making it engaging and accessible to a wide audience and prompting them to take further, potentially offline action. Thus, whilst criticisms of ‘slacktivism’ and performative activism are valid and troubling, social media platforms are also an incredible tool, which we are only just learning how to use in order to affect real change as well as post our holiday snaps.

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