How social media is being used for social change

A woman looks at her smart phone.
Photo by Getty Images.

Go to your Facebook feed right now, and you’re almost guaranteed to find a handful of posts asking for shares or likes of whatever the latest “in” cause is, often accompanied by a healthy dose of subtle shaming. One of the best examples of this has been making the rounds for years but resurfaced in various forms in 2018 after a spate of celebrity suicides:

“This week is Suicide Prevention Week. We all need prayers and positive thoughts. If I don’t see your name, I’ll understand. … I hope to see this on the walls of all my family and friends just for moral support. I know some will.”

Sure, millions of people may “like” that post or share the suicide prevention hotline number—but how many are checking in on their friends and family or donating to or volunteering for organizations that offer support services? Slacktivism at its finest. This isn’t to say that raising awareness isn’t a worthwhile cause. If a hashtag or a share can start an important conversation, more power to it.

“Even though the name itself has a very negative connotation, there are some good things about slacktivism in terms of increasing awareness,” says Dr. Marcia A. Dawkins, a senior core faculty member in the College of Management and Technology. “It’s much harder for people to say that they don’t know about something today than it was in years past.”

From “Me” to “We”

Marcia Dawkins
Dr. Marcia A. Dawkins.

Dawkins has taught Communicating with Social and Digital Media at Walden for about 8 years, and the evolution has been interesting for her both to watch and to participate in.

“When I started teaching the class, we were talking about the Dignity Revolution, the social media-fueled revolutions in Egypt and the Middle East also known as the Arab Spring,” she says. “It’s been interesting to see how starting the conversation online and moving to in-person rallies has been adopted to the American context since then. We’ve seen these strategies used effectively to address #BlackLivesMatter; the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; school shootings; domestic violence; and the #MeToo movement.”

Today, there is more behind a hashtag than most people could have ever predicted. Over the years, social media has moved away from the personal networking we were all so excited to see take shape online and moved more toward a meaningful conversation with—and about—society as a whole. That’s exactly why and how social media activism has become a way to inspire and lead real social change.

“As social media has gotten more complex, more corporate, and more targeted, I have engaged with it less over the years to share personal updates and much more with regard to what is happening here and all over the world in terms of issues that are important to me,” Dawkins says. “It’s less about ‘me’ and more about ‘we’ now.”

No longer are people hiding behind their screens to have conversations about large social issues. Instead, they’re taking it to the streets, in the form of protests, marches, walk-outs, volunteer work, and fundraising.

“There is definitely more engagement between our screens and our streets than there has been previously,” Dawkins says. “People no longer think of these as two different worlds. We used to talk in terms of our ‘online’ and ‘offline’ lives or physical and virtual spaces. That doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.”

Social media is not going away: As of August 2017, two-thirds of Americans reported to the Pew Research Center that they got at least some of their news from social media. As the lines have blurred, what we read online naturally becomes part of our offline conversations, inspiring us to attend a protest, donate to a nonprofit, or write to a congressperson.

“When we see real human suffering—black people being killed by police or a little boy washed up on the shore in Syria—we just can’t help ourselves,” Dawkins says. “That’s what moves us from that stage of slacktivism to what we traditionally thought of as activism.”

Not All Protests Are Equal

“We’ve talked about #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and March For Our Lives in real time in our class,” Dawkins says. Each of these movements has its roots in social media but has become a tangible example of democracy and the right to protest in action.

#BlackLivesMatter was first used in the summer of 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. In the 5 years since, more than 20 Black Lives Matter chapters have been organized, and the hashtag has resurfaced with the high-profile deaths of other African Americans, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore—both of which led to protests that were televised internationally. As of May 1, 2018, the Pew Research Center reported the hashtag had been used nearly 30 million times on Twitter—an average of 17,002 times per day.

The phrase “Me Too” was first used in 2006 on Myspace by Tarana Burke, an American social activist and community organizer, as part of a campaign to “promote empowerment through empathy” among women of color who have experienced sexual abuse. In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano helped it go viral in hashtag form (#MeToo) after accusations of sexual assault involving Harvey Weinstein surfaced. It has led to an ongoing international conversation about sexual assault and violence, from Hollywood to politics to private industry.

In March 2018, more than 1 million people—young children, teens, and adults alike—stepped from behind their computer screens and participated in 800 March For Our Lives events across the country. Awareness of this march was spread through hashtags such as #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Although it has been the high-profile voices that have largely fueled these movements’ virality, it is the influence of social media and the stories of everyday survivors and activists that have given them staying power. Long after the latest celebrity allegation, for example, falls out of favor with mainstream media, your coworker, neighbor, or family member could be sharing their own story. That is the power of social media to create social change today.

But Dawkins points out that we can’t have this conversation without addressing the elephants in the room: access and equity. “When you remark on what the people in Ferguson were able to do compared to the kids in Parkland, you have to look at socioeconomic status,” Dawkins says. “You have to look at where people are and what resources they have access to, right down to the speed of their internet connection.”

She’s not trying to discount the work of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, but it’s an important distinction to make. “If I’m a teacher in a more affluent area like Parkland, there is money in my budget for training on how to use social media effectively in my classroom and how to teach my students with it,” Dawkins says. “These kids are coached to really engage civically. That isn’t always present in communities like Ferguson and Baltimore, and it leads to different framing in the media about why, how, and what people are protesting. Tweeting, in many social and political contexts like Ferguson and Baltimore, is also a very brave act. Given surveillance, sometimes it’s even braver than marching in the streets.”

The Pew Research Center found in 2018 that minority groups find social media platforms to be an especially important tool for their own political engagement. “Roughly half of black social media users say these platforms are at least somewhat personally important to them as a venue for expressing their political views or for getting involved with issues that are important to them,” Pew reports. “Those shares fall to around a third among white social media users.”

So perhaps it is those who are underrepresented in politics—people of color, women, and children—who are finding a voice in social media.

The Conversation Is Just Starting

As social media’s role in social change continues to evolve, Dawkins says it’s going to be interesting to see what other social and political issues are tackled through these channels. She thinks, for example, that there is potential to use social media to address the opioid crisis.

Youth Today reports that the Rise Above Colorado campaign is already using social media to try to discourage opioid drug use among teens by meeting them where they already are— Instagram. The campaign uses research data to reinforce social norms against drug use, such as a video highlighting the number “99,” which represents the “99% of high schoolers who didn’t misuse pills last month.”

“I think the conversation is just starting, and people are figuring out how to address it,” Dawkins says. She says this is because there are a lot of legal implications that need to be ironed out, including patient privacy and past precedent on sentencing for drugs like marijuana and cocaine.

As stakeholders figure out the right ways to talk about the opioid crisis, it might be a little while before the leap from screen to street happens on this particular movement. But with successful predecessors like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #NeverAgain, there is plenty of potential to use social media for the greater social good on this and countless other social issues.

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