Social media today is a platform that we use for many of the things that we normally did before technology became commonplace. We can now shop, communicate and share with a simple tap or swipe. Thus, it is no surprise that activism on social media has taken netizens by storm as well.
With the current ubiquity of technology and social media, activism has flourished, and we can see major movements from the Hong Kong democracy protest to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US have a large online presence. There has never been a more convenient way for people to voice out their opinions amidst a global health crisis.
A Brief History on Activism
Throughout human history, people have fought for change. Where inequality and injustices have run rampant, never has there been anything so influential in bringing about political and social change than the human voice and the human spirit.
It is because of such protests and unwavering activism that we now live in a world where women can vote, where the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer (LGBTQ+) community has rights, and where former colonial territories are now independent states.
The Boston Tea Party in the 18th century was formed by a group of American colonists who were unhappy about the unfair taxes implemented by the British. The protest sparked a significant period in American history and paved the way for the American Revolution. However, although mostly peaceful, these protests have not always been successful in achieving their goals.
In April 1989, tens of thousands of students led demonstrations to protest for democracy and political freedom in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. In the following weeks, at its largest, an estimated up to a million protesters gathered in participation. In response, the Chinese government declared martial law in Beijing in May 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre was a result of the government’s attempt to regain control of the area of which many protesters were killed. It is not known to this day the number of people who were killed in the events that took place.
In the history of protests and activism, the legacy of protesters lives on. Their unwavering pursuit for change highlighted their fight against oppression and instilled a sense of action and awareness in people all over the world. Movements and protests of all sorts have continued to fill the pages of our history books.
Social Media in Activism
Before the age of social media, communication was limited to traditional means – television, radio and print, and gathering like-minded people to bring forward their views in advocating for change could take a long period of time, spanning from several months to a few years. Now, anyone with an opinion can share it with a global audience at lightning speed through online media platforms.
We are seeing information being exchanged faster and wider than ever, allowing large-scale protests to be organised in a matter of days. Today, you can protest for any cause, at any time with just the use of your smartphone. However, as much as social media has made activism easier and faster, like many things, it can be seen as a double-edged sword.
2020 Protests at a Glance
Last year, with the global pandemic in full swing, we witnessed the rise in the use of social media in spreading awareness and bringing about change. The examples stated below paints a picture of the impact that social media has and its role in influencing protests and demonstrations in spite of the risk that the Covid-19 pandemic entails.
In the United States, the 2013 BLM movement returned to national and international headlines in June 2020 when a video of the death of George Floyd was circulated across social media platforms. In a matter of days, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter trended in the millions and brought about an unprecedented number of roughly 15 to 26 million people to the streets. The movement was also significant in garnering worldwide attention, with people from the UK to South Korea marching in groups, echoing the voices of the oppressed and marginalised Black people.
In Nigeria, a series of mass protests and demonstrations erupted in response to police brutality in the nation. The protests trace their origins to the hashtag #ENDSARS that was coined back in 2017 as a means of disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a group of Nigerian police known for their past record of abuses. Come Oct 2020, a video of a shooting by a SARS police officer on a civilian circulated the internet and resulted in an outpour of anger across the globe with the hashtag #ENDSARS accumulating a whopping 28 million tweets on Twitter alone.
In Indonesia, the growing dissent on social media has led to large-scale demonstrations against the Omnibus Law in October of this year in major cities including the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Footage of what was primarily a peaceful protest turned ugly and circulated the internet with videos of police and protesters inflicting violence on each other. This circulation of material online exacerbated the uproar of criticism towards the Work Creation Law. Mr Max Lane, a senior fellow of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute summarises it, “The accelerated use of social media, enhanced by the pandemic situation, has added a greater national character to the mobilisations [in Indonesia].”.
Around the same time frame, student activists in Thailand have also come to the streets to protest against the government demanding reforms to the Thai monarchy. As digital natives, youth activists creatively navigated social media platforms like Telegram and Facebook to their advantage and used tools like memes and emojis to communicate with other protesters to avoid their efforts being thwarted by the Thai police.
The Rise of Slacktivism
Social media has made activism easy, too easy. The convenience of sharing a post on Instagram or retweeting a tweet takes mere seconds. Many believe this simple act of ‘participating’ is enough, and consider it as activism.
It even becomes hypocritical when netizens jump on the bandwagon of following “woke” trends, only to shrug it off and not participate in it in real life. This is a growing form of activism known as ‘slacktivism’.
On June 2, 2020, black squares filled the feeds of Instagram users. In support of the BLM movement, many came to Instagram to post a black square on a day known as “Blackout Tuesday”. As a result, there was an influx of the improper use of the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM, drowning outposts on essential information about the movement. This, among others, is a good example of performative activism resulting in slacktivism.
Slacktivism is a great tool in garnering mass awareness but it becomes a problem when it undervalues the goals behind a social movement. It is relatively easy to ‘like’ and repost information of a movement and then not doing anything about it after. It begins to lose its impact when the majority of people ‘participating’ are merely exercising their fear of missing out or FOMO, resulting in a false sense of sincerity and worst of all, hypocrisy and misinformation.
Coming across a whole spectrum of differing opinions on anything, even when facts come into play, is inevitable. Social media has made the line between fact and ‘fake news’ very thin, resulting in a constant bombardment of criticism and online disputes. In some instances, social media has become an avenue for polarisation, causing netizens to be deeply divided on controversial political topics.
In the recent US presidential election in 2020, the divide between two major parties – Democrats and Republicans, was highly apparent. A record-breaking 159 million Americans voted in the election. President Joe Biden, the Democrat contender, led by a mere 4.6 million votes against former president Donald Trump – a complete shock to Democrat voters who had just witnessed the largest voter turnout in US history.
Social media echo chambers have pushed people to be victims of confirmation bias. The desire to look for information that only supports your existing beliefs is fairly easy in the world of social media and has become a problem where people turn their backs on inconvenient truths.
This phenomenon becomes exacerbated when a powerful person, with a large following, is responsible for spewing false notions, allowing the population to have an increased distrust in facts and credible sources, causing increased tension which translates into political protests on the streets. The recent storming of the United States Capitol is a result of this phenomenon.
A series of protests formed by supporters and right-wing extremists erupted in violence on Jan 6 at the United States Capitol in response to the defeat of former US President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and the failed attempt to overturn the outcome. The event concluded with five deaths and the injury of almost 140 police officers. The riot was encouraged and driven to action by the claims of Donald Trump, spewing false notions that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and “stolen from [him]”.
“The greatest enemy of progress is not stagnation, but false progress”, cautioned American journalist, Mr Sydney Harris. That being said, it is important to be sincere advocates for the causes you care about.
In a time where large amounts of information are available to us in any given moment, it is more crucial than ever to be critical of the information we consume and to not fall victim to misinformation and confirmation bias. The divide that we see taking place time and again on the streets is parallel to the divide and polarization we see online. Fake news is a problem but social media algorithms is what drives it to become reality. We have become slaves to social media algorithms, pushing us to become partisan advocates. It is simply rare or impossible for social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to recommend posts or information opposing the point of view that we already have.
Thus, it is crucial to always be sceptical of the opinions we have. Our news feeds are unique and personally catered to the way we navigate the social media landscape – your perceived version of a popular and thus, correct opinion is not the same version as someone else’s. To overcome this, navigate social media the way you would navigate real-life experiences. Step out of your bubble – listen to a podcast or visit an online community that has opposing views to yours, and do so with an open mind.
As with everything else, social media too can be good or bad depending on what you make it to be. We can either choose to be responsible and open-minded users of social media or fall prey to its algorithms resulting in a series of confirmation bias. Exercising the former is the first step to utilising the whole range of possibilities that social media can offer – including letting marginalised voices be heard and driving sincere change.