Why Is Social Media Activism Important?

Three photos of people at protests are displayed side by side. The first shows a sign reading "BLM"; the second shows a woman whose sign reads "Plot Plan Mobilize Organize"; the third shows a woman whose sign reads "Black Lives Matter".
All photographs courtesy of Zora Khiry.

In 2020, a series of important social movements collided with a global pandemic that caused major shifts to the ways that people around the world live and share their lives via the internet—and many people began to reconsider the impacts of social media activism.

Following the onset of state-mandated social distancing measures, responses to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless others by police officers and white supremacists coalesced into the widespread revival of the Black Lives Matter movement. Millions across the world took to the streets in protest, while some of those people and others voiced their frustrations, spread resources, and raised money for racial justice organizations and victims’ families online.

Meanwhile, terms like “antiracist,” “performative activism,” and “social media activism” were widely spread and popularized both on- and offline. Social media activism is a catch-all term for activism that utilizes online platforms to work toward the goals of social or political movements.

A Brief History of Social Media Activism

For the past decade, social media has been used to bring attention to movements all over the world.

In 2011, activists across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries who were involved in the Arab Spring uprisings used social media—particularly, Twitter—to spread local and global awareness of their protests. Through these efforts, they created a massive grassroots movement that led to the disintegration of undemocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Video of protests and speeches received millions of views and studies have shown that the week before the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, tweets referencing the movement grew from 2,300 to 230,000 a day.

Around the same time in the United States, Occupy Wall Street protests began in New York City. Protesters began forming encampments near Wall Street in Zuccotti Park to protest corporate greed and economic inequality. Videos, pictures, and tweets spread like wildfire, with similar encampments popping up across the nation. While the physical protests only lasted for two months, it has had a longstanding impact on politics in the United States

In 2013, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza helped launch an international network of organizers and activists using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. This hashtag helped birth the movement we are witnessing today known as Black Lives Matter. Throughout the past decade, with more killings of Black people—such as Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and many others—at the hands of police, the movement has evolved beyond any single organization or hashtag. However, it has relied upon social media to spread awareness and education about racial inequality and injustice happening today and throughout American history. 

What Makes Social Media a Good Platform for Activism?

Many critics have discussed whether or not social media activism is an effective form of political and social engagement. However, social media has the power to be a public forum for the exchange of ideas.

Social media allows those often excluded from spaces of access and privilege, like academia or politics, to engage in public and social debate. Social media is a great equalizer. Someone without any personal or professional access to politicians, world leaders, and other decision-makers can get their attention within seconds.

One of the greatest gifts of social media is its accessibility. There are many dangers associated with in-person organizing, door-knocking, and protesting in person, especially in a global pandemic. Social media activism is a great way to include those who are disabled, who work long hours, or who are otherwise unable to participate physically.

Social media activism can create an inclusive space for conversation between organizers, activists, policy-makers, and anyone who wants their voice to be heard.

Social Media Activism vs. Performative Activism

Performative activism is often associated with social media activism. However, there are some key differences: 

Social Media Activism 

  • Supports the work of activists and organizers who have already been working on the ground.
  • Is based on the promotion of resources and information relevant to social and political movements.
  • Uplifts the voices of those within the movement.
  • Listens to voices of the marginalized.

Performative Activism

An example of the difference between social media activism and performative activism is the impact of “#BlackoutTuesday” in June 2020.

Blackout Tuesday was originally meant to draw attention to the contributions of the Black dollar to the worldwide economy, particularly within the music industry. However, on various social media platforms, the original call for action was answered with inaction when millions of people posted a single, black square with the caption “#BlackoutTuesday” and “#BlackLivesMatter.” This prevented activists on social media from sharing relevant information about protests, bail-out funds, and education with these hashtags since feeds were clogged up with black squares.

3 Tips for Effective Social Media Activism

There is a blurry line between social media activism and performative activism, but there are real steps you can take to use your personal and professional social media platforms as a force for good. The goal should be making sure that your posts have a positive impact offline. Here are some things to make sure of when participating in digital activism:

1. Check The Source

Social media allows virtually anyone to share any information they want. That can be a good thing and bad thing. What often happens on many social media platforms is the spread of misinformation. With regard to social media activism, an inaccurate or misleading post may be shared thousands of times by well-intentioned people. It is very important to read through all the articles and websites you share. Make sure you research an issue you may be unfamiliar with. Avoid sharing information just because everyone else has. 

2. Uplift Marginalized Voices

When sharing resources on social media, be intentional about who you are sharing. It is important to always refer back to the voices of the marginalized. Try to avoid sharing information from celebrities or politicians. Instead, seek out those who are playing active roles in grassroots movements. Uplift the voices of those who are most marginalized instead of those in places of privilege. Make sure you look up the writer of an article you want to share or the creator of a video you have watched. Not all information is good information.

3. The Small Things Matter

An unfair criticism of social media activism is that the results are insignificant. Some think that digital activism cannot result in any consequential, real-world results. However, social media has helped birth robust social and political movements around the world. This summer, millions of dollars were raised in support of racial justice movements. The National Bail Fund, which connects an independent network of organizers across the country, received an estimated $75 million dollars in support of people protesting for Black lives. This would be absolutely impossible without social media.

Everyone Has a Role to Play

In a protest, a person holds a blue, pink, and white flag that reads "Black Trans Lives Matter BLM"
All photographs courtesy of Zora Khiry.

In the future, the revolution will be not televised, but rather tweeted, Instagrammed, and live-streamed. Social media can be scary, but it is also a powerful tool. It allows us to learn about people all over the world directly from the source. Social media is a vast network of information, so here are a few places where I recommend starting:

You should not have to be a lawyer, politician, organizer, or academic to be active in movements for social justice. If you have access to the internet and social media, you can play your part.