Written by Eleanor Fraser
“London Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest from Vauxhall to Westminster.” by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash
Since George Floyd’s murder on the 25th of May, my social media feeds have been dominated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in an unprecedented way. I cannot look at Instagram without seeing suggestions of how to educate myself on racism, or Facebook without seeing articles on the toppling of racist statues. The BLM movement went from something I knew little about to becoming the biggest social movement in my lifetime, sparking protests in over sixty countries and every continent except Antarctica – all in the midst of a global pandemic.
This made me wonder how effective social media is as a tool for activism. The BLM hashtag’s rise sparked a broader discussion about social media’s viability and effectiveness in creating political engagement and activism. Amidst trending hashtags and sharing bail funds, the movement has generated conversations surrounding passive engagement, known as ‘performative activism’, and it can feel as though, given the nature of social media, one is shouting their opinion into a void. This article will unpack social media activism and take a look at what does and doesn’t work when furthering causes online.
Social media hashtags have made it possible for social movements to emerge from nowhere, gain traction and become famous quickly, which was impossible pre-social media. Platforms including Twitter and Facebook lend themselves to raising awareness of various movements. The BLM movement began as a hashtag in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the fatal shooting of seventeen-year old African-American Trayvon Martin. It was not used much for its first nine years, apart from spikes linked to incidents of racially-triggered police brutality in America. Three days after Floyd’s death in police custody, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag climbed to an all-time high, when it was used 8.8 million times on Twitter in twenty-four hours. For the following two weeks, the hashtag was tweeted nearly 3.7 million times per day.
(Image: Pew Research Center)
High awareness led to tangible results for some movements. For example, the #MeToo movement’s online activism led to the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, former American film producer and convicted sex offender. However, awareness does not always necessarily equal success. Occupy Wall Street and Kony 2012 – featuring a video about a Ugandan Warlord and quickly went viral – did not achieve their original goals. Occupy never toppled neoliberalism, and Kony is still at large.
The mainstream media tends to ignore campaigns focused on reducing inequality. In the case of these movements – which tackle issues such as institutional racism, sexism, and the fossil fuel economy – digital media have proven to be effective against mainstream media’s negligence. They permit a range of voices to be heard, individual stories to be told and go viral. The ‘Share The Mic’ trend has seen high-profile non-black women — from Julia Roberts to Kourtney Kardashian — handing over their platforms to Black women to magnify their voices.
Digital activism enjoys its greatest success when used with offline action, including signing petitions and donating money. Without BLM’s online success after Floyd’s death, it is unlikely the protests would have reached over sixty countries. The outcry over the trip of the British Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings to Durham in breach of lockdown regulations is another example. Thousands of social media users were persuaded to write to their MPs to express their dismay. Similarly, public pressure led to four policemen being charged for murder, or aiding and abetting in Floyd’s murder.
A key determinant of social media’s effectiveness is whether it can create sustainable movements for change. Unfortunately, the downside of the breakneck speed at which news circulates and is moved on from often means that campaigns can run hot across the internet one day and then vanish. Some conversations, however, seem to be here for the long haul. This is largely thanks to the ease with which individual stories can be shared (like furthering the #MeToo conversation with survivors’ voices), and documenting of injustices, such as #SayHerName, which lists Black female victims of police brutality. Likewise the social media campaign, on behalf of the Windrush generation in tandem with investigations by the Guardian, spurred the Home Office into setting up a compensation scheme for people it abused. This is an example of how action on social media can spur mainstream media coverage — or the other way around. Social media does not operate in isolation.
Performative activism refers to activism done to increase ‘social capital’ by jumping on trends, rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause, or without engagement with ‘real’ action such as donating. Sharing a Facebook post requires much less effort than joining a demonstration or donating and can be more of an act to prove one’s goodness than true solidarity. This becomes an issue when individuals believe including a French layover flag on existing profile pictures (#JeSuisCharlie), or posting a black square on #blackouttuesday compensates for action. When big brands like Nike and Netflix express their support for BLM, their actions are less about dismantling systemic racism and more ploys to appease a quick-to-forget public.
A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 77% of the American public feel that ‘social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important’, and 71% agreed with the statement that ‘social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t’. While it’s important to maintain the distinction between opinion and results, this reveals disillusionment with online activism. To an extent, there is a danger that overemphasizing social media means overlooking real pressure, like protests and ballot boxes.
For many, social media remains virtual and doesn’t extend into how they live their lives. The co-creator of the 2011-12 Occupy Wall Street protests, Micah White, believes social media-induced passivity is undermining traditional activism. In a 2010 piece for the Guardian he wrote: “Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever.… between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing”.
Some successful social media campaigns (like the Vote Leave and LeaveEU campaigns leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum) succeed because they relied on disinformation. In the case of these campaigns, they lied about Turkey joining the EU and Brexit’s economic impact, claiming it would bring £350m-a-week extra for the NHS. They played on latent xenophobia of large sections of the British electorate to secure a Leave vote.
To assess if social media campaign has been successful you must be sure of its goals. If online activism is only for spreading awareness and mobilizing people, then social media is the perfect medium. But if a campaign’s goal is to achieve long-lasting change (such as dismantling white supremacy, as with #BLM; or taking urgent action with climate change, as with #ClimateStrikes) the jury is still out as to whether social media can make that lasting change. If one thing is certain, online activism must be accompanied by offline action to create real, sustained change.