Why Social Media Matters to Activism
Social media is an integral part of most people's lives -- it's also become important for protests and activism all over the world. But what can social media actually do? Today on The Feed, we hear from Erin Guzmán, who offers a perspective on why social media matters to activism.
By Erin Guzmán
I’m old enough to remember a time before computers and the Internet, but young enough to be lumped in with the generational category known as “Millenials,” many of whom have never known a time without screens. I grew up in the Caribbean and then rural Iowa, so technology trickled into my life differently than maybe some other folks my age. It was slow—like dial-up slow—then all the sudden it was here and shiny, and I did my best to play catch up and stay “relevant” as was expected of a young person my age.
As quickly as the digital landscape has changed in my short lifetime, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that the “World Wide Web” would evolve into the thing it is now. Or that our society would evolve to center much of our time and lives around it.
Social media in particular is an anchor for many of us, for multiple reasons. Of course it keeps us connected to family and friends. But it’s also a place where we find news about current events on local and national levels, tips and tricks to make navigating the world a little easier, and supportive communities when we need them. The studies and think pieces about negative effects of social media aside (because literally anything can be bad for you in excess), I believe there can be and is tremendous good in social media.
However, it wasn’t until seminary where I thought about social media in a completely different way.
Attending Vanderbilt Divinity School exposed me to a lot of passionate people and ideas I hadn’t encountered previously in my contexts. Many of my closest friends and classmates were, are, or became active in local or national community organizing. It was inspiring to see so many young seminarians of all walks of life being the change they wanted to see and doing so from their respective faith contexts.
Seeing their examples of prophetic witness made me think deeper about the role faith and religion play in social movements, my own theological commitments to justice, and the logistics of what sustains these movements and those leading them. It seemed there was more than just showing up, but that careful, coordinated work had to be done before, during, and after to ensure goals were met and outcomes were realized.
But seeing the merits of social media in this work didn’t click for me until I was assigned to read a book about the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring refers to a movement–led mostly by young folks in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Arab nations–organized in protest of government abuses of power. Thousands of people turned out to protest in dozens of cities across several countries in coordinated efforts to make a stand. And it was largely made possible through social media channels that bypassed government-controlled media outlets.
Although the exact origins of this movement are complex and the outcomes of the protests are equally complicated, young people in the Middle East with the ability to stream video, live tweet, and document the events unfolding in their communities made their governments pause and take notice. They harnessed and held power, and in so doing wrote/re-wrote history. Despite Western media’s relative silence on the Arab Spring, there is no denying the power that social media played in these events.
It started to finally make sense to me: Social media, when leveraged as a tool for organizing, played an incredibly important part in executing these public demonstrations, and other protests or strategy meetings elsewhere. Thanks to the Internet, the way information travels and the potentiality to reach thousands can dramatically shift the momentum and longevity of a social movement. That’s something we can’t ignore.
We’ve seen this more recently and in different movements, too:
- #BlackLivesMatter started simply as a hashtag by 3 black women in response to the pain and lament over Trayvon Martin’s death, then Michael Brown’s, and other unarmed black youth shot and killed by police or vigilantes. It has since grown to include dozens of chapters that have organized protests in cities all over the country, and drawing support from all over the world.
- #Not1More was created in response to unjust mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the hyper-criminalization of immigrants, and serves as a way to draw attention to the U.S.’s broken immigration system in the hope of reform.
- #YesAllWomen and #EverydaySexism began as sounding boards for women who’ve experienced harassment, sexual violence, and rampant sexism to shed light on the realities of the patriarchal and misogynistic society in which we live to inspire change.
Hashtags, as an aspect of our current social media landscape, aren’t just ways of categorizing “trending topics” or creating slogans for t-shirts. They also give voice to the people directly impacted by injustice and act as a way of calling folks into accountability.
A lot of people are quick to dish criticisms that social media “slacktivism” is just a convenient way for folks—mostly privileged, upper-middle class, liberal white kids—to dodge responsibility or accountability to various causes.
It’s true that it’s “easier” to share a blog or ‘Like’ an organization’s Facebook page or use/create a hashtag or to follow and re-tweet events as they’re happening on the ground, versus potentially getting arrested or putting your life on hold be fully present in the prophetic work that happens at protests. It’s also true that sometimes we can lose ourselves in the hype of what’s trending and in our “bandwagon-ing” we forget to critically reflect on our motives, intentions, and the work that lies ahead.
But assuming social media doesn’t hold the same weight or value as the physical, “on-the-ground” work of organizing and activism is not only wrong, but it’s classist and ableist as well.
The reality is, participating in social movements, organizing, and direct action can be hard and sometimes down right inaccessible to a lot of people who would otherwise be visible.
Not everyone can physically be present at a rally. Reliable transportation, travel distance, or accessible spaces for folks with disabilities and different mobility needs may exclude a lot of people. Some folks live in towns, counties, and contexts where these community organizing activities are discouraged or dangerous, so staying connected online can be the only place where folks can get involved, stay updated, and maintain life-giving relationships or find supportive community. When you have multiple jobs or a family, attending strategy or planning meetings might be out of the question, especially if there is no childcare. And with those commitments, folks may not have the energy or the finances to be able to contribute movements, either directly or indirectly. Or, some may be turned off from movements simply because they can’t access the vocabulary, theories, and ideologies that movements represent and utilize.
While movement leaders and allies can do work to ensure spaces are accessible in ways that make sense, it’s for these reasons that social media activism–in the form of signing online petitions, starting crowd–funded campaigns, sharing information, or showing solidarity from afar, for example–should be seen as valid modes of participation in efforts to create social change that is just as important as any other types of action.
We all have our roles to play in making change, and we should be supportive of one another whether we’re on the front lines, offering indirect support, or networking behind screens.
No one has the monopoly on how to be successful at activism. It often takes many approaches, utilizing different strategies across several platforms to be able to reach the people, institutions, or systems where change is desired. It only makes sense in our current digital landscape that we employ social media as one necessary tool among many to be able to accomplish organizing and activism goals, supporting and including the people who use this form of activism along the way.
Erin Guzmán, MDiv, is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, class of 2015. She currently oversees all social media accounts for Moyo, and also works part-time as a Volunteer Coordinator with Luke 14:12 soup kitchen, an organization that serves meals to hungry and homeless individuals in downtown Nashville.