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Is social media helping or hindering activism?

ByElla Olszowska

Mar 14, 2018
Social media has affected all areas of life, particularly voicing opinions and activism.

Over the past decade or so, social media has obtained a somewhat infamous reputation for propelling public awareness of political matters. From the 2010 revolution that was the Arab Spring protests, to the ALS ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, that raised awareness of motor neurone disease, it is clear that social media networks have certainly created something of a stir in terms of activism, whether for better or for worse.

Currently there exists a strong public division over the extent to which social media is helping or hindering activism, whether political or otherwise. Whilst some celebrate its benefits in raising awareness over global atrocities, as well as supporting important causes like the Women’s March. Others have criticised social media for provoking what is seen as unnecessary discord within society, and galvanising a generation of youngsters into believing themselves capable of changing public opinion.

With every year that passes, an increasing number of people jump aboard the social media bandwagon, and this could not be more true than for amongst the young. In fact, a report from the Global Web Index last year revealed that those aged between 16-34 have, on average, 8.7 social networks each. Aside from requiring  a huge commitment to maintain that number of accounts, our constant need for connectivity and to be up-to-date with the latest social media trends has opened the door to offer us a unique position over issues that previously, we had little or no control over. One of the most influential of these is that nowadays, anyone and everyone who has a social media account can make their voice be heard. That means 98 per cent of the global population have unprecedented access to spread the word about any issue, to a global audience, and at a faster rate than ever previously thought possible.

In the past, people have been quick to criticise social media campaigning as being lazy and un-altruistic, branding it with labels such as ‘slactivism’ and ‘hashtag activism’. While a retweet is of course not as powerful as campaigning in person, nor will it immediately incite change, it does not mean that a message shared via social media should be rendered completely worthless. After all, the only way to instigate change is to show collective support for an issue, and for many, social networks are the farthest reaching and quickest way to do so.

That said, back in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker outlining how the reinvention of activism through social media has distorted the line between political and popular authority. As James K. Glassman, former senior State Department official, stated, “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” For Gladwell, this is the very problem. In his piece, he defends his criticism of social media activism by highlighting the differences between activists nowadays and, say, 40 years ago. He refers to the views of Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, who claimed that activists used to “emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters [with a] personal connection to the movement”, whereas nowadays, anyone from anywhere can choose to support a cause, whether or not they truly believe in it, at the simple click of a button. This distanced anonymity of enabling people to make rapid decisions on important issues, with little to no repercussions, is what Gladwell sees as the undermining of activism in its true sense.

It would be ignorant to say that social media has not permitted the proliferation and accessibility of activism. One cannot ignore the fact that social networks allow dialogue to develop amongst the public on different matters and in spite of government censorship, meaning that everybody’s voice is heard. Of course, it is worth recognising that by allowing people to comment on matters that do not directly affect them, it somewhat demeans the efforts of those who truly seek to make change.

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