by: Carley Hutchinson

Have you ever tweeted about #MeToo? Maybe you’ve shared a friend’s post about Black Lives Matter? If you have, congratulations – you’re an activist.But, some naysayers like Mark Drumbl would like to call you a slacktivist (Drumbl, 2012). And although minimal effort activism is still alive and well, it is hard to deny that something has changed in the past few years when it comes to online activism.

Long gone are the days of Kony 2012 and other “unsuccessful” campaigns that created a lot of interest online and no real change in the real world, earning online activism its bad reputation. We’ve recently witnessed the creation of movements like the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, Me Too – all of which were coordinated almost exclusively online. And like I’m sure you have, I’ve heard about all of the claims from people who are quick to label ​all​ social media campaigns as lazy and ineffective. Although it might be controversial, I disagree. Here’s why. One of the main positives of online activism is the ability to use social media to share information at a speed that was previously impossible. In a relatively short amount of time, social media and Web 2.0 have drastically changed our lives and the ways in which we communicate, organize, and consume information. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have provided activists with tools that previously only traditional media platforms had access to.

While they might be perceived as insignificant at first glance, hashtags hold a tremendous amount of power in their ability to direct attention and organize enormous groups of people. When enough users engage with a particular hashtag, algorithms pick up on the activity and the hashtag is sent to the trending page where it becomes more visible. It is these popular or trending hashtags that bring worldwide attention to issues and movements.

The Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements were initially hashtags. The popularity of these hashtags aided in the creation of a broader discussion surrounding very critical issues like race, police brutality, sexism, and sexual assault. Both of these movements have inspired changes in the real world. More women feel comfortable coming forward and voicing their experiences with sexual assault, meaning that perpetrators are being held responsible for their crimes. Black Lives Matter has created a coalition of racial justice organizations fighting for racial justice. Some very substantial changes achieved by a simple hashtag.

Social media activism also gives voices to those who are usually silenced and denied from the mainstream. In the past, social movements were invisible and therefore ineffective if they were not covered by mainstream media platforms. Much of the information shared on television, radio, and newspapers could easily be slanted in a direction that pushed forward a mostly white and conservative dialogue. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook provide activists who have races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders that have been excluded from the mainstream with the ability to vocalize and mobilize. With the ability to frame their own story, activists are empowered with the tools needed to share their stories and experiences with the world.

The Black Lives Matter movement brought forward issues surrounding racism, police practices, and media representation – all things that mainstream outlets and authorities have historically swept under the rug and out of the conversation. The Me Too movement has given voices to not only women but transgender women as well, who have been most victimized by sexual assault and harassment. By connecting individuals from marginalized communities, social media has placed a degree of power into the hands of those who need to share their stories.

I understand why people are quick to judge any form of social media activism. When we look at historical social movements like the Civil Rights movement or the Women’s Rights movement, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter don’t appear to drive the same amount of dedication, participation, or physical protest. But comparing the two is not possible or fair because they are so different.

Online activism does not replace physical protest in the real world. You are not a hero just because you retweeted something on Twitter. There is still a substantial amount of passion and intention needed to take these hashtags out of their social media platforms and into the world. As Merlyna Lim has argued, the human body is still an essential instrument in driving political change (Lim, 2018).But we cannot deny that social media activism is extremely powerful in sharing information on a global scale, organizing bodies, and inspiring conversations – all of which are essential steps in creating a social movement. We have come along way from the slacktivist campaigns of a few years ago. What we’re witnessing now is a generation of individuals determined to break down racial and gendered structures of oppression. What we’re witnessing is the true power of social media activism.

Drumbl, M. (2012). Child soldiers and clicktivism: Justice, myths, and prevention. ​Journal ofHuman Rights Practice,​ 4(3): 481-485.

Lim, M. (2018). Roots, Routes, Routers: Communications and Media of Contemporary Social Movements. ​Journalism & Communication Monographs Series​, 20(2): 92-136.