Why not listening to good music while reading? My inspiration for this article about social media activism is Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2. Play it now!
Activism is “the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one”. If going to the streets used to be the only way to protest, the rise of the Internet has changed the game. Today, 4.028 billion people are Internet users and 3.196 billion active social media users, representing 53% and 42% of the world population, respectively. In 2017, we counted an additional 248 million Internet users and 362 million social media users. Just imagine: it is 5,4 times the French population.
Activists, just like anybody else, take advantage of new opportunities brought by the Internet. But is this new form of expression really efficient?
WHEN SOCIAL MEDIA EMPOWER PEOPLE
Social media brings confidence to many people who are not scared anymore to say what they really think. A study by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that around half of Americans have engaged in some form of political or social-minded activity on social media in 2017. This phenomenon is particularly true when it comes to minorities: social media platforms are very important for half of black social media users in the USA, whether it is to express their political opinion or to engage in situations they feel concerned about.
What could encourage them to rely on social media? Well, let’s say… hashtags. First introduced on Twitter by Chris Messina in 2007, hashtags are now everywhere. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google +… all platforms have incorporated them, allowing users to see what the new trends are and to add importance to their posts. Because here is the true power of hashtags: it gives people the chance to feel united and strong while talking about a specific topic.
One of the most significant examples is the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Created in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman – a policeman who shot to death Trayvon Martin, a 17-years-old black man – this hashtag was used approximatively 30 million times on Twitter with 17,002 mentions per day on average. The reason for this success is the black community’s wish to be seen, listened and understood. It is the desire to show they are numerous even though they are considered as a minority. Behind this hashtag, there is the opportunity for them to prove that strength lies in numbers and that they can act to make things change. Behind this hashtag, there are millions of people doing activism online.
A more recent illustration is #Metoo. One year ago, the famous Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all women who had ever been sexually harassed to write ‘me too’ as a status. Soon, thousands of women answered her tweet worldwide. Employed more than 2 million times in 85 countries in only 2 days, #MeToo has been adapted in many languages: #YoTambien in Spain, #QuellaVoltaChe in Italy, #BalanceTonPorc in France or even #أنا كمان in Arab countries.
— Talkwalker (@Talkwalker) October 17, 2017
If Milano’s aim was to have a vision of the scope of this problem, gender equality supporters began to jump at the chance to voice their beliefs and make the impact even bigger. Suddenly, it was not only about denouncing but acting together to make things change. One year later, many activists feel optimistic about the future such as Rebecca Amsellem, founder of the newsletter Les Glorieuses. In an interview for Francetvinfo, she states that it is the beginning of something bigger such as the coming of a true gender equality. For others, like Aija Mayrock, a bestselling author and activist, the fight is not over, and social media are still a perfect place to talk. For the Day of the Girls, she broadcasted the following video on Youtube and Twitter:
— Aija Mayrock (@aijamayrock) October 12, 2018
SOCIAL MEDIA YES, BUT NOT ONLY
Would these examples of activism have had the same impact without social media as a support? Certainly not. Yet, it is important to highlight that even though social media is a great tool to amplify the impact, no change can be entirely made by staying online.
Trends are only for a time
Four years ago, 276 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram’s armed forces. Various associations and NGOs around the world immediately reacted on the Internet and, with celebrities’ help, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls appeared. This time, the movement consisted in taking a selfie with a piece of paper on which the hashtag was mentioned. The engagement was high but unfortunately, as trends are short-lived, it lasted only a time before moving to the next subject. Also, online activism engendered a global awareness but did not trigger a military response from other countries worldwide that was strong enough to solve the situation.
Another reality is that some countries impose strong barriers to online activism. China, for instance, punishes all forms of activism and massively regulates online activities. As mentioned by Hervé Fischer, “the Chinese government attempts to maintain control in spite of everything, and in 2000 it proclaimed three laws in quick succession to curtail expression”(1). A real obstacle for activists who cannot fight using digital assets. For those who try, the consequences are serious: people such as Gup Qinghai – a man who spread articles about democracy on the Web – are condemned to prison or even worse, to labour camps.
Today, social media and the Internet are not sufficient yet to create real changes; even though they are crucial for a worldwide movement. Without the protest marches, the intervention of experts on TV sets or during radio shows, and the intervention of other media, there are a few chances that governments finally react.
So, online activism? Yes, please! But do not forget: “Online and on-land activities augment one another; they have to in order for social change to happen” (2).
To go further, watch this TEDxTalk by Zeynep Tufekci about “How the Internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win”:
(1) Hervé Fischer, Digital Shock: Confronting the New Reality, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, translated in 2006 by Rhonda Mullins.
(2) Beth Kanter & Allison H. Fine, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, John Wiley & Sons, USA, 2010.