by Rory Clark

The social media boom that began in 2007 is perhaps now coming to an end, with Facebook numbers now dropping for millennials and post-millennials in Canada, not to mention the many post US election social media ‘scandals’ (I’ll just let you Google that one yourself and take your pick), as well the ongoing debate concerning how well online activism actually works.

However, let’s go back to that fateful year, 2007, when the first iPhone hit the shelves, with full (touch)screen smartphones proving to be a major enabler and amplifier of social media engagement. Facebook and YouTube also released their mobile platforms that year. Other notable 2007 milestones include Facebook overtaking Myspace in Alexa rankings and YouTube consuming as much bandwidth as the entire internet was estimated to have in 2000, with some actually proposing YouTube and other video streaming sites actually might crash the entire Internet in years to come. Also in 2007, Twitter spun off into its own company and introduced the hashtag while also holding a showcase at SXSW where some mused whether it might be the next YouTube.

However, the major social media platforms, as mentioned in my earlier post, were not originally intended for, nor was it even envisioned they might be used for the facilitation of activism and social movements to the extents that they now are. As Facebook’s Product Manager of Civic Engagement, Samidh Chakrabarti notes,

Facebook was originally designed to connect friends and family—and it has excelled at that. But as unprecedented numbers of people channel their political energy through this medium, it’s being used in unforeseen ways with societal repercussions that were never anticipated. (para. 6)

While popular discourse on the matter in the West celebrates social media for their supposed facilitation of prosocial endeavors, some academic literature is more suspicious, and one might argue cynical.

The so called (by Western media) Twitter revolutions of 2009-2011 (Moldova, Iran and the ones in Tunisia that spurred the Arab Spring), were held up, cautiously at times, as empirical evidence of how the democratic and emancipatory potentiality of social media was manifesting itself in their ability to support these movements. Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa regions saw uprisings and revolutions that we in the Western world seemed quick to take some credit for via the functionality of social media. The fact the Arab Spring only resulted in one country, Tunisia, transitioning to a constitutional democratic government, and has led to devastating widespread ongoing conflicts and civil wars since dubbed the Arab Winter, is something Western media is less enthusiastically talking about in relation to social media.

Some scholars are questioning whether social media even had the effect or affect we wanted to imagine it had in the first place. Iran, on the eve of the election that led to their civil unrest and mass protests, had only 19,235 Twitter accounts, 0.027% of the population (Morozov, 2012, 15). Morozov goes on to argue that much of the social media traffic that accompanied the Iran protests likely actually originated in the West and proposes that people perhaps were changing their Twitter locations to Tehran to “confuse” authorities (ibid.).

Now the popular press and the academy (Hogben & Cownie, 2017; Obar, 2014) are beginning to wonder if online activism is actually worth the effort, whether it might be, as Morozov and others argue, displacing other methods of more effective action and engagement.

A popular and fairly accurate notion to keep in mind is that the Internet and social media are reflections of society. Just as the Internet does not make people racist or sexist, it is not going to make them activists if the desire does not already exist. As one “Father” of the Internet, Vint Cerf reminds us,

The internet has become a mirror of our global societies. Fifty-one per cent of the world’s population is estimated to have access to it, many of them by way of smartphones. (para. 6)

However, it can amplify existing tendencies. Some believe, and some research has shown that millennials and post-millennials—while desiring change and to also (somewhat less often however) actually be the agents of said change—they may have conditions attached to their engagement. As noted in the previous batch of interviews, sometimes this is comprised of the social media attention, the social media currency in the form of likes and comments, that one may receive for jumping on a trend like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge or KONY 2012. Sometimes it may be to have something to put on ones CV. Sometimes it may be because the movement directly pertains to issues that affect/effect them. Sometimes they may simply do it out of the goodness of their heart.

Let’s see what this batch of student-scholars have to say.

Works Cited:

Hogben, J. and Cownie, F. 2017. Exploring Slacktivism; Does The Social Observability of Online Charity Participation Act as a Mediator of Future Behavioural Intentions?, Journal of Promotional Communications, 5(2), 203-226

Morozov, E. (2012). The net delusion: how not to liberate the world. London: Penguin.

Obar, J. A. (2014). Canadian advocacy 2.0: an analysis of social media adoption and perceived affordances by advocacy groups looking to advance activism in Canada. Canadian Journal of Communication, 39, 211-233