Charlottesville protests, Michael Brown’s death, the abduction of the teenage girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the BlackLivesMatter movement, the Women’s march on Washington, the disclosure of dozens of sexual harassment cases in Hollywood. What do all those events have in common? They all came with a massive exposure on social media.
For the past few years, social media have been an open and global space for people to speak out and be heard. Social networks have become an activism platform by amplifying social movements through hashtags.
Let’s take the #MeToo movement as an example. Since the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, millions of women have been posting their stories and testimonies using the #MeToo hashtag. The hashtag became a symbol to citizens that wanted to show their support and stand against sexual harassment. In the past four months, the hashtag has been used more than 10 million times across 85 countries. The trend’s propagation speed and the solidarity shown by online users showed the potential impact of social media on social issues. In this situation, social media brought people together. They gave a voice to those who, until now, had been left unheard. They enabled users to realize that they were not alone. During this period, social media revealed itself as an empowerment tool, strengthening and unifying people.
But can any hashtag or viral moment, be enough to translate into actions, become a real and durable movement and have a measurable impact on social issues?
This question appears even more legitimate when we look at the digital bones of once-vibrant hashtags on social media. Just take a look at #BringBackOurGirls, #Charlottesville, #Ferguson. The current inactivity regarding those topics highlights the public’s short attention span.
Another part of the issue is the phenomenon of “slacktivism” (understand slacker activism). This term was developed by sociologists to describe “keyboard activists”, people who react online to an event or a movement, usually using social media, but don’t take offline actions. Slacktivism is a real issue when it comes to social campaigns. A study, from the University of British Columbia, showed that online displays of support, such as “liking” a charity online, actually hurt the charity’s fundraising efforts, because people don’t follow through with financial support or volunteering. This phenomenon is such an issue in social enterprises that UNICEF Sweden had to conduct a campaign in 2013 to expose “keyboard apathy”. The campaign slogan was: “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio. We have nothing against likes, but vaccines cost money.”
On another topic, social movements exposed social media downsides, at many occasions. During the Arab Spring, social media had a decisive role. The Arab spring revealed social media greatest potential but also exposed its greatest shortcomings. If we take the example of the Egyptian revolution, we can see how social media united the population and lead them to impeach dictator Moubarak. Egyptian citizens used Facebook and Twitter to share concerns, engage with each other, call for action and share news that the regime didn’t want the population to know. Thanks to Facebook, Egyptians gathered and protested for change and eventually it led to the dictator’s impeachment. Nevertheless, the same social media that allowed the gathering of the Egyptian population, also lead to intense polarization of the society. Right after the revolution, Egyptian population failed in building consensus and it created political conflicts. Social media only amplified this state by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors and hate speech and eventually it led to the overthrow of the first elected president by the military, a few weeks later.
Facing these observations, it’s interesting to wonder how to improve the way we design and use social networks in order to promote civility, thoughtfulness, quality and mutual understanding. For that, we will need to find a way to deal with rumors that confirm people biases, to open discussions between people with diverging opinions, to check facts and fight trolls and hate speeches.
We can conclude saying that, nowadays, social networks are not sufficient enough to drive real and durable social change, considering the way they are designed and used. According to sociologist Jen Schradie, specialist in digital activism, the most successful movements are those who have an organizational infrastructure in place: a network, a coalition, a united front of a group of celebrities or established organizations. The only way to have a real impact is still to volunteer, donate time and money, basically do more than lift your finger to “like”, so don’t way any longer and donate: https://www.unicef.fr/article/la-defense-des-droits-des-femmes
Ghonim, W., 2016. Let’s design social media that drives real change. Ted Talks, [online]4 February. Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiwJ0hNl1Fw [Accessed on 14 February 2018]
Arden, J., 2016. How social platforms are inspiring social change. The Drum, [online]4 July. Available here: http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2016/07/04/how-social-platforms-are-inspiring-social-change [Accessed on 6 February 2018]
DigitalMediaTeam, 2017. How the #MeToo hashtag shows the power of social media for social good. DigitalMediaTeam, [online]17 October. Available here: http://www.digitalmediateam.co.uk/metoo-hashtag-shows-power-social-media-social-good/ [Accessed on 15 February 2018]
LaMotte, S., 2017. How #MeToo could move from social campaign to social change. CNN, [online]9 November. Available here: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/30/health/metoo-legacy/index.html [Accessed on 17 February 2018]
Mitchell, T., 2014. Top 10 Social Activism Hashtags of 2014. HuffingtonPost, [online]17 December. Available here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tasha-mitchell/top-10-social-activism-ha_b_6331648.html [Accessed on Febraury 16 2018]