The Black Lives Matter movement began with a hashtag five years ago this July, and many still use it to respond to instances of violence against black people in America. Tarana Burke created the hashtag following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, and it’s since been used almost 30 million times on Twitter. But the hashtag does not stand alone; it is accompanied by protests, fundraisers, and political action in response to violence and inequality.
Photo: Elyssa Fahndrich on Unsplash
On the website of the Black Lives Matter movement, the movement’s founders, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi write, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” Clearly, the movement is so much more than just a tweet. Does this mean, then, that social media on its own is not activism? Does it mean that for a movement to be successful, it needs more than the internet? Or does the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter prove that social media is one of the most powerful tools we have to promote social change?
In a study from the Pew Research Center released on July 11, 2018, data show that Americans are divided on whether or not social media is an effective means of protest and activism—and that divide tends to split along racial lines.
The Center found that Black social media users are more likely than white users to say that social media sites are personally important for giving them a venue to express their political views (53% vs 32%).
Further, the study found eight in 10 Black respondents agreed with the statement, “social media helps shed light on rarely discussed issues.” Meanwhile, that same percentage of white respondents said that social media sites “distract people from issues that are truly important.”
The study’s general conclusion is that Black social media users are more likely to view those platforms as forces for change and ways to express their opinions. Perhaps this is because social media has provided a platform for people of color that is both accessible and unifying. Twitter boasts a global audience, and with that, a global community—so when a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter can circulate rapidly in response to violence or injustice, this means that people all over the world can come together quickly to fight for a common goal.
The question still remains, however, whether or not it is truly “activism” when a social media user tweets out a hashtag related to an activist movement. It is one thing to coin a term and use it as a slogan to unite people worldwide; it’s another to send out a tweet in protest of police brutality without any actual follow up or action.
We know that social media have the power to create policy change and document our everyday lives—just look at the #MeToo movement. This hashtag gained traction online and brought to light the culture of sexual harassment and abuse that permeates our society to its core. This push helped to bring justice to victims who had been ignored or silenced for years—look at the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, who now awaits trial for sexually assaulting women in Hollywood, or the many victims of gymnastics coach Larry Nassar who finally got to tell their stories in court and help build the case against him.
The argument against social media activism says that it encourages a sort of “slacktivism”—a term coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 to describe someone supporting a cause with minimal effort. Just tweet out a hashtag, and you’re done. You don’t have to show up to a protest or donate to a campaign as long as you can show your followers that you support a cause. It doesn’t have to be through a hashtag either; you could change the frame on a Facebook profile picture, or post an image of yourself holding a sign. Regardless, it enables people to say that they have done their part without taking much direct action.
While this culture of “slacktivism” might give people a pass to do as little as possible, social media activism still has the power to revolutionize the way we protest and organize. For every person who feels that a tweet is enough, there is another who is inspired by that tweet to call their local politician and demand change. For every Facebook frame that disappears after two weeks, there’s a fundraiser that gains another donation thanks to the power of social media.
We can’t clearly define activism via social media as entirely evil or entirely perfect. We can, however, recognize its power to sway public opinion and increase awareness.Taking advantage of that power, and knowing that activism will always continue to evolve alongside our technology, is the first step towards improving our society day by day.
Abigail is a rising sophomore at Emerson College studying for a BFA in creative writing. She spends most of her free time during the year working for her school newspaper, but also enjoys going to poetry readings, spending time with friends, and cheering for her hometown Philadelphia sports teams.