Does social media activism work?

Back when the internet and social media didn’t exist, our main method for being an activist or spreading our opinion was by writing letters to the editor of a newspaper or marching down city streets.

Now?

Think of all the social media platforms available: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Tumblr… there is so much information available and opportunity for people to provide it. This is the basis of what has been dubbed participatory culture, where hashtags can bring down the worst of us and citizens become the journalists from their living room.

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Social activism has grown out of the era of 24/7 connectivity, where an issue or cause for social justice never sleeps. Consider hashtags like #MeToo, #TimesUp and #BlackLivesMatter and the reach that they had in their respective issues becoming sustained conversation topics. In the year since #MeToo was first used, the hashtag has been tweeted 19 million times.

 

#MeToo is probably the biggest issue in recent times that began on social media and had positive effect to the sufferers of sexual assault and harassment. Within hours of the initial #MeToo tweet by actress Alyssa Milano, thousands of women shared their stories. Male perpetrators were fired and disgraced, and many more stories hidden for decades came out of the woodwork. In this case, social media activism works. It is when tedious celebrity issues arise, it creates a snowball of unhelpful and really quite useless commentary.

 

While each social media platform is different, it is now an even playing field for social activism and commentary. Twitter was originally the place to start a debate, as using hashtags quickly mobilised a large discussion. Facebook and Instagram are a lot more “social”, and only since brands, companies and influencers all began profiles on the sites has there been a spike in demands for social justice. Putting blame on someone famous for having an opinion doesn’t help the situation though, does it?

 

The repercussions of social media activism on brands and individual reputations can be catastrophic and is something that must be strictly managed by community managers who control the sites. The anonymity that is afforded to online activists is the most damning aspect.

 
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Anyone can say anything and gain momentum until they are pulled up on it. Deleting comments and blocking users is considered fair play in the circumstances of overtly political or offensive tirades, but even dragging a brand through the mud can have a user barred or their comments hidden. Self-moderation occurs here too, with users and brands reaching a self-defined point whereby an alternative, often controversial, opinion is not reacted upon.

 

Does this therefore affect transparency? Should brands and influencers just be open and discuss issues, instead of pretending they don’t exist?

 

For those working in the social media marketing and community manager roles, like us at Hotglue, monitoring comments is key. If a single user says one negative comment about a brand, this can open up a minefield of structured and careful replies from brands, but also an attempt to control an onslaught of copycat comments.

 

Social activism has been rampant in recent times in regard to big issues like Trump (even just him personally aside from his presidency), though even the most seemingly trivial of issues can cause outrage in 2019 because the public are given such a good platform to have a say.

 

A great example is the resignation of the Masterchef judges on July 23. Within minutes, loyal viewers were claiming that they would no longer watch the show. This can then potentially form other viewers’ attentions and feelings towards the issue. Many people also suggested launching petitions to get the judges reinstated. The disparity here lies in citizens’ lack of information (were they in the contract meetings?), which highlights an instance where social activists are fighting a battle that they can’t really win.

 

The mobilisation of real issues is steadfast however, and it is not uncommon for people to latch on to a “trending” topic before they have even considered the information for themselves. It is considered “cool” to think like the most popular comment on the feed and is often a conditioned response—a separate issue in itself.

 

While awareness of natural, political and environmental disasters has increased, the conversation generally dies away after a week’s news cycle. The irony being that social activists often prefer not to donate or contribute to helping such causes, instead just wanting to throw in their two cents to the discussion. There is also a level of misunderstanding from such people, dubbed “slacktivists”.

 

How many times have you commented on something but not cared to check back on the progress of the issue? This demonstrates the impression that social activism is created rather than acted on.

Sophie Evans