Social Media & Social Movements: Partners in Crime?

Article by Anna Groh | Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno

2017: The hashtag #MeToo goes viral on social media, breaking the national silence around the issue of sexual harassment. This eventually resulted in the firings of several men in high-power positions and changes to federal law (North, 2019). According to the Pew Research Center, the hashtag was used about 19 million times on Twitter alone.

2019: Hong Kong protesters successfully used social media as a tool to raise awareness for their cause. In addition to disseminating information, social media became a way for them to “win the hearts and minds of the people” through sharing emotional content (Shao, 2019).

The latest scandal: George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by police officers on May 25, 2020. This event sparked another upturn in the Black Lives Matter movement. The #BLM hashtag hits a new record of more than 47 million tweets within two weeks, 9 million of which just on its peak day (Anderson et al., 2020). People couldn’t deny what was happening any longer as the video clearly displayed Floyd begging for his life. Social media gave it a way to go viral and lead millions of people on the streets to demonstrate that solidarity has no borders.

If it wasn’t for social media, these movements probably didn’t develop into such a dynamic force that would later have a substantial impact on the status quo. As it can be a powerful mediator between those unheard and those not listening, social media can play an essential part in social movements. But is it necessarily an ally in the fight for more justice? This article takes a closer look at the possible ways that social media is involved in social movements as it considers some of its numerous advantages and disadvantages.

Increased social networks

The internet has continued to shrink our world and pushed globalization forward. This has allowed social media to override the limitations of time and space and made sharing information much easier. It offers the chance to effortlessly bridge social-capita: social cleavages such as socio-economic status and race, giving people different perspectives and stories on the same issue.

Furthermore, probably most of us know the habit of adding more and more people to our “friend collection” on online platforms- some of them we’ve never even met. This promotes a significantly broader social network, meaning our “weak ties” increase through similar interests or common friends (Burnett et al, 2018).

Putting this in context with social movements, networks of diverse social environments provide the chance for information to spread around quickly and people to see issues from new perspectives. This can enhance a sense of collective identity and solidarity, which is essential for social movements to be successful (Shaw, 2013).

Trapped into algorithms

At the same time, the internet is smaller and “smarter” than we think. So smart in fact, that it will memorize all your internet activity (browser history, cookies). This “memory” creates our very own algorithms – content that is specifically tailored to our preferences. However, it“hides” content outside of our preference range, especially opinions contrary to ours. Needless to say this cuts out a large part of the “whole picture”, leaving us in our very own filterbubble of information and echo-chamber of opinions (IONOS, 2020).

Free accessibility

Social media’s automatic selection stands in contrast to traditional media as content bypasses it the moment it gets posted. As Burnett et al. note, activists have the chance to establish their very own narrative since they won’t have to worry about alterations or changed contexts made by traditional gatekeepers such as journalists.

“Social media provides us a platform to tell our story as real, as raw, and as relevant as it may be, without the worry of a filter being put on” is what different activist groups stated (Burnett et al., 2018). This can become a privilege, especially for those suppressed by the government or by society (Krings, 2019). A survey of the PRC supports this indication: a majority of 80% of black US Americans support the statement “Social media highlights important issues that might not get a lot of attention otherwise” (Anderson et al., 2018).

However, easy accessibility can be a huge disadvantage as a movement’s opponents can make use of it, too, since an online conflict becomes almost impossible to control for initiators after a certain point. This points us to another fact we should consider: the anonymity that comes with the online world. For people in authoritarian countries, speaking up can be life-threatening because most protests are labelled as illegal riots and come to violent ends (Malchik, 2019). Therefore, social media can become the only safe space for them to organize, communicate and gain support.

Slacktivism

Seeing all the support that the BLM-movement received online is truly special. Yet, I began to question the authenticity of some posts of people attending the protests. “This isn’t Coachella” was only one of the comments I read. I got the impression that to some, it subliminally became a trend to participate in protests in order to post about it, afterwards. It can quickly become a habit to just like, comment and retweet content but subsequently feeling like enough is done for the day.

In science, this is referred to as “Slacktivism” and describes “the practice of supporting apolitical social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment” (Lexico). In line with this, the Pew Research Center found that 71% of US adults agree that “Social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t” (Anderson et al., 2018). In practice, people post content along the lines of the original issue while incorporating the same hashtags or channels. As a result, the very core topic and its central message get “blurred” by this amplification, shifting away the attention from the original issue.

Conclusion

Putting all of this together, social media plays an important part in the process of social movements as it helps to mobilize people and spread information on a very large scale. However, it remains important to be aware of the dangers which come with the flood of information and the ease of accessibility, such as misinformation, radical messages and echo-chambers.

In my mind, the question to think about is to what extent social media can be part of these movements. Is it only “one part”, or can it become the battleground itself? Needless to say, possible public attention is what makes social media such a powerful and essential tool. It gives minorities and those oppressed a way to voice their cause to a larger audience. In my mind, social media can therefore provide a starting point for public discussions as people share their stories for the first time.

As a breeding ground for issues to gain more awareness, the movements will likely go beyond the online world, resulting in a variety of in-person protests. I believe the in-flesh part of movements is crucial since it gives the movement its necessary expression of power and puts more pressure on governments. But as in-person movements progress, social media can still be a crucial asset in continuing to share visuals and messages with the rest of the world.

Social media has the potential to complement movements in a very powerful way, despite its many risks. There can probably be great power in combining the two of them, or as Malchik from “The Atlantic” states, if “the ease and speed of online connectivity with the long-term face-to-face organizing that gives physical protest its strength and staying power” come together. This is what we are witnessing in the BLM movement: A posted video went viral, in-person protests erupted worldwide and eventually, old cases of institutionalized racism were sent for retrial. Hopefully, many more victims’ families will soon gain their justice.

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