Social Media and Social Justice Activism: Opening a space for participation
“[Social media] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”
– Malcolm Gladwell (2010)
In a 2010 New Yorker article titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media based activism is too passive and will not lead to the kind of cultural revolution that occurred in the 1960s. He considers the way the 1960s sit-ins and bus boycotts differed from more recent twitter activism and argues that twitter activism requires no real risk-taking (2010). While I agree that participating in spite of personal risk is a bonding agent for passionate activists and may incite continued activism – and that is simply not possible in the same way when participation is online – I also find that social media opens up spaces for participation by those who would otherwise be excluded in activist activities. I’m especially interested in the ways in which it may open up spaces for aging and disabled activists (for example), as well as the ways it has made participation newly inaccessible. Indeed, I would argue that social media both allows for more intersectional identities to participate in activism, even while erasing some kinds of intersectionalities.
I. Space Making and Social Media
It is clear from Gladwell’s criticisms that there is debate over whether activism that happens predominantly over social media is effective, or even really activism. Along with Gladwell’s critique, some have coined the term “slacktivism” to understand what kind of work happens over social media. Slacktivism is defined as, “low-risk, low-cost activity via social media, whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity,” (Rotman et. al. 2011). In this sense, slacktivism is often associated with self-esteem raising activities rather than more altruistic goals. But this definition and public understanding also indicate that raising awareness and low-risk change-making using social media is not considered full activism.
This second definition is something I would push back on. I argue that passive activism can have real impact – especially when it means connecting aging affluent populations with causes they support, for example. In thinking about the ways Baby Boomers will take on activism as they age – considering their reputation for activism during their youth –, John Williamson argues that they may engage in more passive forms of activism, but that will still be impactful (1998). He writes:
“While vigorous forms of political involvement tend to decline during late life, more passive forms of political involvement persist well into old age. This includes voting and contacting public officials. […] A form of passive political activism that has not received adequate attention to date is checkbook activism.” (1998).
Indeed, the places Boomers donate money can impact social movements, local election results, and even large-scale political campaigns. He goes on to acknowledge that Baby Boomers are more technologically literate than previous generations and the rate of change of technology over the course of their lifetimes may make them more inclined to take up new technologies as a way of connecting and as a part of their political activism (1998). Williamson was writing before major social media such as Twitter existed, but he correctly predicted the invention of more connecting technologies. And while we often associate such social media sites with the Millennial generation, they open up an exciting space for Boomers willing to use them, too. This is particularly significant when considering the physically disabling effects aging can have; social media then has the potential to allow for social activism and engagement when physically attending rallies or protests may no longer be possible. Additionally, if checkbook activism is something aging Boomers are participating in, then it is also important to consider where their information about causes and charities is coming from. Here social media also plays a role as information source.
In the same way that social media allows for aging adults to participate in activism work through more passive forms, social media allows more people with disabilities to engage in new ways. Not only does it benefit people with physical disabilities that prevent participation in rallies or demonstrations, but it also benefits those with mental disabilities such as social anxiety who would otherwise be unable to be present. From the security and relative accessibility of one’s home, people can keep abreast of social movement activities and support either monetarily (checkbook activism) or by piecing together and spreading information (awareness-raising activism/slacktivism).
Other people are also granted greater access to social movements through social media. People home with children, disproportionately women, are granted access to updates about social movements they might otherwise be separated from. People who may not have televisions and rely on their phones or computers for news and information are also granted access.
And I would argue the potential social media has to enable connections across varying social movements is hugely impactful for college students. Over the past year, as students at a number of elite colleges have launched campaigns to raise awareness on the challenges students of color face at predominantly white colleges, schools and students have been able to connect with one another. This allows a relatively small scale campaign at one institution to be connected to a larger movement in higher education. Additionally, solidarity can be shared between schools using the tools of social media. This is seen in particular in the use of hashtag campaigns (such as #IfIwere #BecauseIam) on sites like Facebook and Twitter to consolidate posts on a topic and show the sheer number and range of information being produced.
II. Real Limits to Social Media
Of course, social media is not a cure all for access to activism. For some, there is an economic barrier to participation on such sites – one must rely on a computer or smartphone for information, something not everyone can afford. For others there is a geographic barrier – one needs internet access through Wifi, a phone network, or dialup, and some very rural locations simply are not connected to those networks. An additional geographic barrier comes when people want to use social media to plan protests and demonstrations. Then, cities are often privileged due to the high concentration of people able to participate. Ability to take in the information offered on social media websites requires literacy, which is another barrier to participation. For the visually impaired, without text-to-voice technology, the sites are also entirely inaccessible.
In analyzing the impact social media has on social movements, Gladwell rebukes the argument of two writers and explains:
“‘Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,’ Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” – Malcolm Gladwell (2010).
Though Gladwell means this to be a criticism, I think in some ways this is deeply beneficial for many who have been excluded from social movements and social activism because of the limits and level of motivation required. Stronger numbers of involvement is, I would argue, a first step in raising motivation. And raised motivation means more potential for successful large-scale demonstrations and change-making activities.
Finally, while Gladwell espouses the Woolworth sit-ins of the 1960s as successful and ideal activist work, he is privileging those with access to that kind of demonstration. He is privileging those who can spend an entire work-day sitting at a diner (full-time students). He is privileging those who can sit in one place for an extended period of time (able-bodied and youthful people). He is privileging those more able to take risks in spite of potential retaliation (those without children or dependents). While this kind of work by people with these privileges is still extraordinarily valuable, I cannot see the harm in making space for more participation in other forms. I see social media as a way of allowing participation in activist work to be more intersectional.
Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change. The New Yorker. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/200/10/04/small-change-3
Rotman, D., Vieweg, S., Yardi, S., Chi, E., Preece, J., Schneiderman, B., . . . Glaisyer, T. (2011).From slacktivism to activism: Participatory culture in the age of social media. In CHI EA '11 (pp. 819-822). New York, NY: ACM. doi:10.1145/1979742.1979543
Williamson, J. B. (1998). Political Activism and the Aging of the Baby Boom. Generations, 22(1), 55-59. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from https://www2.bc.edu/~jbw/documents/sc54001.pdf.
 #IfIwere and #BecauseIam were hashtags started at Bryn Mawr in the week preceding the solidarity demonstration that students planned in response to the Confederate flag incident and the administration’s lackluster response. The tags were envisioned to shed light on the privilege and lack of privilege students have at our institution, in particular based on race. These tags were then used by students outside of the Bryn Mawr community in solidarity and to shed light on these same phenomena at their own institutions.