Protesting has existed throughout many communities since the abolitionist movements until present day with Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, March for Our lives and many more. Each and every movement has had its activists who have organized the protests, conversations, and awareness. More importantly, with the advent of technology social media has reached its peak of utility in political activist work. Specifically, Twitter has become a very vital platform for activists to communicate nationwide, globally, and to audiences of various political and social backgrounds. The role of social media in activism has enhanced movements through hashtag campaigning which in turn has brought together millions of people online, created impactful organizations, and pushed activism forward.
Twitter and other social media platforms have been useful for the bringing together of people from all parts of the country. This has been accomplished through hashtag campaigning on Twitter. One of the most infamous examples of this is the Ferguson protests which arose after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Activists from the community and neighboring cities took to Twitter to create hashtags and post tweets about the details of the rally. They attracted celebrities, people from neighboring states and of course locals. Social media was able to give them this opportunity to reach out to so many people. In fact, “…what brings attention to a movement or a hashtag is the high number of mentions of a hashtag, which is what brings it worldwide attention. Twitter, and other social media platforms, has an analytics system where they track and follow hashtags. They are able to give followers the top ten hashtags in the world, in the U.S., or in chosen the area of the follower, as well. On the home page, twitter displays the ‘trends’ for all to see and click on” (Khan-Ibarra, 2015). As Khan-Ibarra contends Twitter makes it readily accessible for people to join social movements and draw attention. If a picture of the protests and the violence which occurs during these rallies circuits the internet people can quickly tweet and hashtag in order to draw in the attention of millions.
Similarly, another hashtag campaign which took off was that of #AliceinArabia which sparked attention and controversy globally. The hashtag began after a problematic show created by Brook Eikmeier “decided her time in the Middle East gave her carte blanche to tell a story that didn’t belong to her, not to mention one that perpetuated many stereotypes” (Khan-Ibarra, 2015). People were upset over the misinformation she was spreading through this show and went to Twitter to express their concerns. It is examples like these that influenced people to use Twitter to bring attention from people all over to share their concern or even rage for the things that happen outside of social media platforms. In fact, movements like these would often catch enough attention that “ultimately led to ABC pulling the show” and “mediums like Twitter give people the platform to amplify their concerns, demand authentic storytelling, and create dialogue that may eventually dispel stereotypes” (Khan-Ibarra, 2015). Social media platforms are ways for activists, passionate people, students, anyone to express their concerns about TV, governmental action, current events, breaking news, and so on.
The same passion which drives millions of people to protest via social media can also impact the world off the screen. For example, many organizations and positive outreach programs have been built or created as a result of political work on Twitter. One of these examples is that of Johnetta Elzie who was 25 at the time that Michael Brown’s fatal shooting occurred and rocked the nation with its tragedy. Elzie had already a huge standing on Twitter with 2,00 followers that read about her interests on makeup, sports, movies, etc. However, all of this changed after she decided to drive to Ferguson for the protests and became a reporter for thousands of followers. She tweeted about what was happening “on the day Mr. Brown died, Ms. Elzie drove to Ferguson and started tweeting and posting photographs and videos to social media. She has not stopped” (New York Times, 2015). Soon after she gained a total of 57,000 followers and “is now an organizing member of the group WeTheProtesters.org, along with Mr. Mckesson” (New York Times, 2015). Elzie is one of the many examples of social media activists that rose rapidly because of social media platforms and thus ended up creating impactful movements. With the help of social media, ordinary people are given the voice and the opportunity to become revolutionary community organizers and activists.
Social media has become a vital aspect of activism through the levels of accessibility which it offers. More specifically, social media has given movements of anti-police brutality the exposure that can often get erased by mainstream news outlets. In fact, in an interview with activist DeRay Mckesson he discussed “the history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven’t had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded” (Berlatsky, 2015). Social media let’s people who have been marginalized historically to rewrite their stories by themselves. Often times, their experiences may be invalidated or mistakenly written, but with a platform like Twitter it gives activists that source of sharing and spreading information which can educate millions of people. Before activism was introduced into social media, it was merely just a way to connect with local people to organize protests and once Twitter became useful for spreading information like where the rallies would take place, why they were taking place, and what was currently occurring as they occurred, activism grew a whole other face. For example, Mckesson says, “our access to information is also so much greater than in the past. For instance, there’s an officer in Ferguson who is really aggressive with protestors for no reason. And I was able to take a picture of him—he would cover his badge with his hand, he would not show his name. So I took a picture of him, put it online, and within 30 minutes they knew everything about him” (Berlatsky, 2015). In this example, Twitter gave Mckensson the opportunity to spread helpful information that in previous years wouldn’t have spread as quickly. This gives activism a better chance at attempting to combat social issues and get more change quicker.
Although social media activism may be on the rise, critics may argue that while it is a platform for activists it may cause them to get too comfortable with just using the internet and not going out to protest. They may argue that “Twitter hashtagging might empower citizens by giving them a voice. On the other hand, acting in the online world will never replace concrete action in the offline world. As the #Bringbackourgirls campaign shows, if no action is taken offline in response to an online movement, little will be achieved, regardless of how supportive the online global community is” (Segovia, 2014). This critique neglects to acknowledge the very workings of social media activism which is to combine activists’ work in the streets through protesting with that of activists online to further spread information quicker. They also neglect the ways in which social media activism becomes vital to that of the younger populations. In fact, “There isn’t one correct way to advocate, and passing information along is and always will be vital to spreading awareness of a problem. Social media activism is especially important for younger generations, as many millennials and their peers hardly watch the news. What they find on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram often constitutes the extent of their information intake regarding the world at large” (Andrews, 2017). As Andrews contends there is not one correct way to advocate for a cause, but simply drawing attention to the cause can positively impact many people to make revolutionary changes big or small to address an issue. Moreover, social media activism entails of “certain forms of political expression, such as online petitions, benefit greatly from netizen participation, as they were only a fraction as effective twenty years ago as they are today. In that way, online activism has actually improved upon its progenitor, leading to the ability to make changes that previously would have been impossible” (Andrews, 2017). Protesting through these new spaces allows for larger audiences, easier involvement, and newer and more effective ways of social change. Online petitions as Andrew mentions are one of those very innovative examples which move activism in a new direction and further advance its motives.
In fact, petitions like the ones Andrew mentions have had large impacts for the advancement of certain political movements online. One of the most eye-opening examples is the net neutrality movement which first took place in 2014. The movement started online as a petition signed by 1 million people in hopes to “restore the federal protections for net neutrality that were struck down in court” (Jeffries, 2014). In just two weeks they were able to collect 1 million signatures shocking the FCC and making them re-consider their decision. A strong public response like this one, especially one online demonstrates the extent to which the online public goes out of their way to get involved despite their efforts being virtual. This movement propelled millions to act and speak out against a political move which affected the country. Ironically, this movement affected the tech world greatly and its responses only proved further how strong social media can be. This petition was spread through tweets, texts, Facebook posts, etc. The purpose was to make sure people were informed, aware, and were acting.
Social media continues to play vital roles in our daily lives and it has been recently taken a vital role in activism. Social justice groups have utilized Twitter in the recent years after discovering its multi-faceted uses for spreading information quicker and more effectively. Twitter is partially responsible for the moving forward of social justice efforts because the other part should be held responsible to the activists and the people behind the screens. Twitter does not limit them to just having discussions online about controversial topics, but instead it pushes them to do more outside of the virtual world for the issues they
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