Life Online: How our Social Media Culture Advances the Cause of Human Rights Advocacy

Social media has played a major role in publicising events at Standing Rock Indian reservation and as a platform for protests, both against the pipeline and against local authority responses to protests. More than 1 million Facebook users checked in to Standing Rock reservation in response to a call to ‘overwhelm and confuse’ the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, who were accused of using Facebook check-ins to monitor the number and identity of protesters. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has denied using Facebook check-ins to monitor activism at Standing Rock and the website Snopes, which investigates online rumours, stated that “If police were using geolocation tools based on mobile devices, remote check-ins would not confuse or overwhelm them.” Nonetheless, the check-ins have been well received as a statement of solidarity. Kandi Mossett of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nation said she was encouraged by the massive response, as “It gives people a way to support us.”

Celebrities have become major players in the promotion of such online movements. With their lives shared with increasing intimacy through the screens of our laptops and smartphones, popular celebrities have a unique ability to focus the eyes of the world on important human rights issues. This has been particularly evident in the case of Standing Rock. ‘Divergent’ actress Shailene Woodley streamed her arrest for criminal trespass on Facebook Live while protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. She has since stated via Facebook that she believes her arrest to be because of her large fan-base, which would constitute a serious breach of international law as arrests cannot be made solely for the purpose of intimidation. In light of this and evidence of police using excessive force against protesters, Amnesty International USA has sent human rights observers to monitor the actions of police. Other celebrities such as Jaden and Willow Smith, the children of film stars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, and Mark Ruffalo (best known for his portrayal of the Hulk in the Avengers film series) have posted images and videos of scenes from the protests to Instagram. Ruffalo shared with his 3.7 million Instagram follower an image of a ‘Water Protector’ who had suffered serious facial injuries as a result of being hit by rubber bullets.

Protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline take to the streets of New York, by Joe Catron

One often-stated criticism of such action is that once people have liked, shared and even ‘checked in’ on Facebook, they may be inclined to believe that their contribution to the movement is over. ‘Slacktivism,’ termed by Urban Dictionary as “the ideology for people who want to appear to be doing something for a particular cause without actually having to do anything,” is a major concern for online social justice movements. However, at the very least, these online movements ignite conversation on important issues, spreading news of human rights abuses across the globe, and in reality the impact of social media in affecting change can be considerable.

Social media played a notable role in the Arab Spring, with demonstrations coordinated over Facebook and Twitter in Egypt and social media networks used to evade government news censorship in Tunisia, particularly to spread the word about human rights abuses. Speaking in 2011, Khaled Koubaa, Founder and President of the Arab World Internet Institute, emphasised the role of social media networks in igniting revolution: “Three months before Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Sidi Bouzid [Tunisia] we had a similar case in Monastir. But no one knew about it because it was not filmed. What made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook and everybody saw it.”

When a 30-minute video about the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony appeared on the internet in 2012 it became an immediate hit, garnering 100 million views on YouTube and worldwide attention in just six days. Though the media presence of the Invisible Children group was somewhat short-lived and Kony is still at large as the head of the remainder of LRA forces, this, their most successful media campaign, achieved something that no diplomat, charitable organisation, or journalist had achieved in 25 years of campaigning: the deployment of 100 US advisers and 5000 African Union troops to search for Joseph Kony. Here also, the role of celebrities in promoting human rights abuses by Kony and his army was substantial. After Oprah Winfrey published a Tweet containing the hashtag #KONY2012, views of the Invisible Children video rocketed from 66,000 to over 9 million.

Many stars in the entertainment industry have used their influence to promote human rights issues in other ways too. A number of high-profile R&B artists have used recent album releases and performances to protest against racial violence in America. Beyoncé shared the red carpet at the 2016 VMAs with the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Oscar Grant III. Sybrina Fulton’s son Trayvon was fatally shot in 2012 at the age of 17 by a local neighbourhood watch volunteer, while Gwen Carr, Lesley McSpadden, and Wanda Johnson’s sons died in incidents involving law enforcement officers. Martin, Brown, and Garner’s mothers feature in the visual accompaniment to Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ album, holding images of their sons, and in a similar statement, Frank Ocean sings “R.I.P. Trayvon” as he holds up an image of Trayvon Martin in the music video for ‘Nikes’, from his most recent album, ‘Blond’.

Black Lives Matter protestors raise their hands on London’s Oxford Street, by Alisdare Hickson

Beyond symbolic acts, these major influencers have encouraged fans to take action to support social justice movements. In a statement published in the aftermath of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Beyoncé encouraged fans to protest against police violence by contacting their local politicians to demand action, providing a link to a website with instructions for contacting members of Congress. Her husband Jay Z became one of a number of artists who has donated to organisations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, with his streaming service Tidal reportedly donating $1.5 million from the 2015 Tidal X: 1020 charity concert to social justice groups to assist with campaigns and legal fees.

With our world increasingly moving online, social media – and the role that celebrities play in utilising their following to promote human rights issues – can be a powerful tool in increasing awareness of social justice movements and affecting change. Human rights issues are inescapable in the online news media of social platforms and these provide a gateway to action on human rights issues in just a few clicks. Whether we sign petitions, contact our local government, or pledge our time or money to a worthy cause, this medium is undeniably becoming a powerful force for human rights advocacy.

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