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  • Mary Thomas

Political Activism in the Age of Social Media

(photo licensed by Creative Commons)

People have used social media and various forms of instant communication to enact change in their societies since its inception. The people of the Philippines used text messaging to pressure the ousting of President Joseph Estrada in 2001, social media of all types was used during the Arab Spring, and protests were set up around America via Facebook in honor of #Metoo. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into a virtual space, the use of social media for political activism has increased. According to a study by the PEW Research Institute, more than half of Americans have engaged in some form of political or social-minded activity on social media within the past year. They classified political acts as everything from being part of an interest-based group, looking up information on protests, encouraging others to take action, or changing their profile picture to show support for a cause. The study found two other pieces of helpful information: 1) both Democrats and Republicans engaged equally in these activities 2) there was significantly higher participation from those aged 18-50. This information provides context for the way that social media is used as a platform for political activity by highlighting that young people on both sides of the aisle drove it.

Social media has as many ardent critics as it does supporters, but the pros and cons of being a digitally-dependent protest organizer have been recorded. In her article titled “The Second Act of Social Media Activism,” Jane Hu emphasizes how social media has increased the ease and accessibility of protests. Digital connections have decreased the logistical issues protest organizers traditionally have to deal with, allowing them to reach a larger audience and connect multiple decentralized locations. Participation in social movements can be as easy as clicking some buttons on your smartphone. The use of social media also gives those with different abilities, or tight financial situations, the chance to take part in social justice reform. Technology has essentially made protesting more convenient and therefore more accessible to everyone.

At the same time, this rapid spread of media dependency has also brought some drawbacks. A University of Delaware article named “hashtag activism” as a negative, which explains how the ease of hitting a button or sharing a post has led to a rise of disingenuous “activists.” This issue was brought into the limelight during last summer's Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as agencies previously known for opposing stances, such as the San Francisco 49ers, shared pro-BLM posts. The rise of social media has additionally made it harder for dedicated activists to protect themselves, as they are easily identifiable in pictures and videos from these events. During last summer’s protests, the ability of governments and corporations to track individuals through the media led to multiple protestors being fired from their jobs for their participation. Although the accessibility benefit is crucial in raising the effectiveness of protests, it also increases the likelihood of performative activism while increasing the danger for dedicated protestors.

Whether one chooses to embrace this new form of political expression is their own choice. It is clear, however, that the use of the internet has made speaking up for your beliefs much more popular and accessible.


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