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Activism Focus

Online Activism: How Can Social Media Make a Difference

Illustration credit: Tia Marchiselli

Social media has grown massively in the last couple of decades. Nearly half of the world’s population is in some way connected to the Internet (3.5 billion people out of 7.7 billion). In the United States alone, around seven-in-ten Americans–a rough 237 million–are active on social media. It is safe to say that with such a great number of users on these platforms, their impact on our daily lives is nothing short of significant.

Social media brings together people and has increasingly become a means of transmitting news and information. Magazines and newspapers that were traditionally on print now establish themselves online, taking advantage of social media platforms to reach a bigger audience. Politicians often use social media to do online campaigning and increase their number of supporters. Multiple different social justice movements and non-profit organizations advocate through social media and so forth. 

All this access and widespread reach changes how information is divulged, spread, and consumed, virtually impacting how activism is done. Here are a few ways that social media can make a difference.

Influencers/Celebrities and How They Can Help

The word ‘influencer’ has become quite a fuss these days, much like ‘celebrity’ has been for quite a while. Some follow them like obsessed fans while others argue that their “job” is overrated and hardly work at all. 

However, it cannot be denied that celebrities, as well as big influencers, have millions and millions of people checking out their accounts on a daily basis, watching what they do and say, buying the products they recommend and trusting their opinions. This small group of people has a fairly large sphere of influence solely based on their follower counts. Whether that is fair or not is up for debate.

There are many influencers and celebrities who are passionate about one or more social causes and do not shy away from speaking about it. Platforming their advocacy can genuinely help. They are doing relevant work to support these causes by simply spreading awareness. They may do so by posting about it, sharing online articles that discuss the issue or even directly engaging with others, including politicians, about the matter. 

When they choose to speak up about social, political and/or environmental matters on their platform, their audience will be at least be partially introduced to issues they may not have heard of before or had much interest in learning about. 

Furthermore, plenty of influencers and celebrities donate money to charities and organizations that fight for a cause, setting an example for others to follow. By sharing donation campaign links such as GoFundMe and information about different charities they support, influencers and celebrities can encourage their followers to donate as well.

Connecting With People That Actually Have Gone Through/Are Going Through These Types of Issue

It can be hard for many people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and fully grasp the magnitude of a hardship. Social media can, as long as its users are open to it, make that easier. 

You are able to meet people from just about anywhere in the world through these platforms, including people from different cultures, different races, and different genders, all of whom have different stories. There are many important things that you can learn from all of the diversity housed within various social media platforms.

You can find people who will teach you to, for instance, the proper usage of pronouns or the differences between sex, gender identity, and human sexuality. You can learn directly from black people about how structural racism truly affects their lives every single day or directly from women about how they are treated differently solely because of their gender simply by following them on social media. Social media allows an intimate insight into the lives of groups of people you may not be exposed to, opening up a pathway for learning through direct observation and interaction.

You might even find out about a crisis that is happening in a different country before it hits the worldwide mainstream media because you just so happen to follow someone who lives there and is thus in touch with the local media. Foreigners may give you the insider scoop about not only what is happening in their countries but also how it is affecting the general population.

Social media can often be a gateway for people to learn more about certain causes. Formal education and traditional media can obviously teach and inform you to a certain extent. But, talking and learning from people that have stakes in these causes and lived experiences can offer you an entirely new perspective and understanding of the matter.

Moreover, social media can be a place for actually productive and valid discussions. Not all that is being said under polemical tweets or Facebook posts is utter non-sense or petty comments. You can usually find at least one respectful interaction in which people are genuinely open to teaching and learning about the issue at hand.

From Online Activism to Real Life Activism

Social media has become a useful mechanism to rapidly reach great numbers of people. Many activists take advantage of that by using it as a way to spread information about donations (as previously mentioned), petitions, and protests. 

Take the Global Climate Strike in the last week of September as an example. Efforts to get as many people to go to these protests heavily rely on social media. There are usually even Facebook events created so that more people can share a cause with their friends and RSVP to these strikes. This is just one of the many important ways that social media brings online activism to life.

Seeing swipe-up links on influencers’ Instagram Stories or online petitions being shared on Twitter and Facebook may seem meaningless and useless at first glance. However, social media does have a positive impact on social, political, and environmental causes. These platforms are incredibly useful marketing mechanisms. It is all a matter of how they are being used and how do people act within them.