8 March 2018
Advanced Essay #3: Social Media and Activism
Society is constantly evolving, and with that comes changes in every aspect of it. Each generation has been defined by a social or political movement, and the tactics involved in the movements have matched the times. In the twenty-first century, social media has become one of the most prominent forms of communication,- seeing as in 2017, 81% of people in the United States had an account on a social media (Statista)- and has subsequently become central to modern activism. On various platforms, different bubbles of accounts have formed based upon political and social opinions. People within these groups use social media to affirm their identity as activists. But is social media actually helpful in accomplishing real social change?
First, it is necessary to note the groups that are present on social media and how they interact. The groups that I have observed are usually comprised of young people, and therefore are a representation of the faces of future activism. There are two examples of groups that interact with activism by, for one group, being a part of it, and for the other, criticizing it.
One group is commonly referred to as “Social Justice Warriors” by others in a disparaging way. This group is made up of feminist, pro-gay, or pro-black accounts, for example, who follow and interact almost exclusively with each other, sharing opinions on topics relevant in current events. Examples of people in this group are Laci Green and Anita Sarkeesian. The other group is anti-politically correct, anti-”SJW” people who act in similar ways to the previous group, but are centered around near opposite opinions. An example of someone in this group is Paul Joseph Watson.
Both of these groups exist because people of like minds flock together to create a space in which they feel safe, a space in which they can base their identity. As Malcolm Gladwell says, “the self is irreducibly social”. A self is defined by those of others. On social media, you can pick and choose who will influence you the most, and members of these groups choose influencers by their political views. Interestingly enough, it does not appear that the members of these groups are always on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the far right or far left. Many appear to be on the left or in the middle. However, social justice has expanded farther to the left with more radical ideas, which lends to more conflicts between liberals.
The fact that arguments are occurring may not be a bad thing for activism. It means that conversation is happening, and that’s one of the biggest things to come out of the rise of social media. This may be because social media platforms are essentially breeders of “weak link” relationships. They encourage correspondence between acquaintances, people with mutual friends, and people with similar interests. These relationships are highly useful in terms of increasing awareness and participation in a movement. If someone has a message, they can send it out to hundreds or even thousands of people instantly, people who will now know what others are saying about the topic without seeking it out. Groups and pages can be created around a topic, allowing for everyone who wants to be involved further to do so. These interactions have contributed to social media’s usefulness in aiding political change. According to Professor Clay Shirky, “social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements.” Shirky also argues that social media utilizes the two step flow model of communication, which “proposes that interpersonal interaction has a far stronger effect on shaping public opinion than mass media outlets” (Britannica). In the first step, information is spread to the general public on mass media. In the second, people begin to talk about it. It’s this part - hearing the opinions of people you know - that forms one’s own opinion about the topic.
The argument against social media in activism is centered around the same weak-link relationships that increase participation in it. This is because the increase in participation is caused by a “lessening [of] the level of motivation that participation requires” (Gladwell). This means that people are less invested in the causes and their connections to the causes are less personal. It takes a much deeper commitment to participate in a protest that could turn violent, such as many during the Civil Rights Movement, than it does to hit “retweet”. The masses would much rather like a Facebook page than show up to a march. While there are still people who participate in real-life activism, social media can be unhelpful in organizing such events. Because these movements are not planned and put into action by a hierarchy of activists, ideas within the movement are more likely to conflict, and there is a “real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals” (Gladwell).
Do the pros and cons even out? Would 1,000 people going out and risking their lives for a cause have the same effect as 100,000 people reposting a message? It’s hard to say, and could be different case by case. Claiming one way is better than the other may not be as productive as accepting this change in society. As long as the “slacktivism” found on social media does not serve “as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it,” (Shirky) there will be benefits from its role. We must be aware of how much we depend on it, because if the stakes of everyone involved in a movement are low, the movement is bound to fail. Activists have still been getting things done recently, including the Women’s March, the #metoo movement, and protests for stricter gun control. They will undoubtedly continue to adapt to the rise of social media.
“Percentage of U.S. population who currently use any social media from 2008 to 2017.” Statista,
March 2017. Web. March 2018.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change.” The New Yorker, 4 October 2010. Web. March 2018.
Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media. Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political
Change.” The Council on Foreign Relations, January/February 2011. March 2018.
Postelnicu, Monica. “Two-Step Flow Model of Communication.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 28
November 2016. March 2018. www.britannica.com/topic/two-step-flow-model-of-communication