Image: Saumya Grover via Canva
Ever since its emergence, social media has been a tool for activism. People use platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok and Instagram to like, comment, and bring awareness to provide opinions and observations about issues. For over a decade, social media has provided a realm for journalists and non-journalists alike to report events.
In 2012, when many of these platforms were in their infant stage, “citizen journalists” reported the conflicts that came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” Fast forward to 2017, when we saw a similar pattern with the #metoo movement. Victims and non-victims alike took to social media to amplify the voices of those subjected to violence and oppression.
Three years later, the Black Lives Matter movement revealed the extent to which social media could provide a space for individuals to gather both online and offline. On the day of the first BLM protest (May 26, 2020), approximately 218,000 tweets used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Within two days, there were nearly 8.8 million tweets. Online communities came together to plan the protests that followed. By late august, there were over 7,750 nationwide BLM demonstrations.
On Instagram, there are over 26.3 million posts under that hashtag today. Users of all kinds, business accounts, and individuals began posting and sharing content affiliated with the movement to raise awareness and spur action. The goal was to fill as many virtual spaces with content as possible.
That was not the case on Blackout Tuesday, however, when the movement that was intended to serve as an expression of solidarity turned into a trend. Millions of black squares flooded Instagram feeds. “I felt pressured…It took away the focus of the actual movement. People became worried
about posting not because they actually cared for the cause but because they were more afraid of people judging them for not posting,” says my friend Madison Romeril. “In the end, posting a black square did more harm than good and pushed down real information,” she continues. This fiasco prompted a conversation on performative activism, also known as slacktivism.
Amidst this discussion, we lost sight of social media’s potential to incite change. Performative or not, authentic or not, social media activism has an impact. A 2020 study found that 23% of American users claimed social media shifted their views, with many citing the BLM movement as an example. Furthermore, despite the movement’s overlap with the height of the pandemic, when fear of contracting the coronavirus was widespread, 15 to 26 million in the country participated in these protests.
My friend Margarita Markus, who grew up in Ukraine, strongly believes that social media is key to spreading accurate news about Russia’s war on Ukraine. “I try to post valid information by referring to my friends who personally experience that reality,” she says, “But when I post about other events, I try to be more careful with sharing the right information as I have less personal verification possibilities.”
This fear of misinformation is one of the main obstacles social media platforms face today. Slacktivism may help bring an issue to the attention of authorities, but it could also lead to the dissemination of a narrative that isn’t true. Take the case of the women-led freedom rights movement in Iran at the moment. In the last months of 2022, many influencers, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shared a post saying, “Iran sentences 15,000 protesters to death.” Within a few hours, these posts were taken down due to claims that the Iranian government had not yet issued the death penalty for these activists. Given that the post was shared by celebrities, it brought a lot of positive attention to the human rights crisis in Iran. However, it also paved the way for the Iranian regime to frame countries like the United States as perpetrators of disinformation against the Middle East, distracting the public’s attention from the crisis at hand to the tensions between the two regions.
Such instances can often deter users from posting, but giving into the fear of making a mistake will only hinder progress. In the case of Iran, social media is one of the only ways for the youth in the country, at the forefront of the movement, to raise awareness of the various crimes against humanity their government is committing. For these efforts to succeed, the protest movement in Iran needs a responsive audience that is willing to spread the word abroad.
People concerned about spreading misinformation can easily spend a few minutes researching before they post. Verifying citizen journalism, however, is not as easy and may require further research on the platform to see if others have also reported similar experiences.
Admittedly, it’s impossible to amplify every cause, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have an impact. Social media holds the key to amplifying the voices and stories of those who do not have the freedom or reach to be vocal about their experiences. Rather than focusing on slacktivism and the dangers of social media, we should shift the narrative to understand how we can effectively use such platforms to make change for the better.
Saumya Grover is the Special Projects Intern at Digimentors. She is also a junior at Fordham University studying Journalism, Digital Media, and International Studies. Saumya is passionate about advocating for those from marginalized communities through storytelling.