What does social media activism accomplish?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

As protesters continued to pour into America’s streets over the killing of George Floyd, images of black squares flooded social media on Tuesday in an effort to show support for antiracism and to protest against police brutality. The squares, part of a campaign called “Blackout Tuesday,” snowballed across social media feeds, but they also drowned out previous posts intended to organize in-person protests and share other resources. While the online campaign certainly brought attention to its cause, it also drew criticism for its execution and many questioned its effectiveness. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, online activism has taken on new significance, as those who fear exposure to the virus in large crowds look to participate on the internet. Although some people had started to reduce screen time and spend time outdoors prior to the coronavirus crisis, as Americans work, educate and socialize from home, online media consumption has increased.

There’s a long history of social media being used as an organizational tool for activists, from the Arab Spring demonstrations — which were organized and shared with the world via sites like Twitter and Facebook — to #MeToo, the viral hashtag that sparked an international movement against sexual assault. 

Editor’s note: Some Verizon Media brands participated in “Blackout Tuesday.” Yahoo News did not participate.  

Why there’s debate

While some argue that social media is a powerful organizing tool, others say that it only helps if it translates into offline action. And both advocates and critics generally agree that social media movements are hard to control. Posts can bring larger crowds than expected to protests or be flooded with personal attacks on the user. 

Advocates of social media say it can be used to introduce people to movements and educate them about issues. It has the power to quickly spread awareness and information about causes to huge numbers of people. They also say that it provides a platform for underrepresented minority groups to speak out. While one post on social media may seem trivial and useless, the conversation needs to start somewhere and one post is better than nothing, many argue. Online activism is inclusive, and allows those who cannot protest in public to participate in causes from home. 

Some critics assert that posting on social media about causes is an empty gesture that allows people to put on the public facade that they care — and then ignore the issue offline. They say that it is “performative allyship,” meaning that people only post to prove to others that they care about a cause without taking substantive action. Sometimes, critics say, this takes advantage of other people’s pain, as people can post viral videos of violence to prove a point, even if it triggers traumatic responses in others. In the case of the black squares, organizers have been accused of losing control of the campaign, which backfired and ultimately drowned out the very voices that it was attempting to uplift.

What’s next

As movements grow, activists are employing increasingly sophisticated strategies online, and it’s likely that these strategies will continue to be developed and used. For example, the famously dedicated fans of Korean pop music fans swamped hashtags like WhiteLivesMatter with videos of their favorite stars. Some users on YouTube have also worked out ways to game the site’s advertising system to increase revenue for causes they support.

Perspectives

#BlackoutTuesday helped raise awareness for non-activists

“For seasoned activists, #BlackoutTuesday was a moment in which popular support paradoxically made it harder to keep people informed. But for many others, it may have been a step towards political engagement through difficult terrain.” — Jolynna Sinanan, The Conversation

#BlackoutTuesday silenced the voices of activists

“Not only was this a facile attempt at armchair activism, it actively disrupted the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, which protesters, reporters and activists were using to collate news about police violence against protesters. At exactly the moment when power requires interrogation and urgent reckoning, social media users, celebrities and influencers rallied for silence.” — Fatima Bhutto, The Guardian

Activists can use social media to share resources and petitions

“Students propagate resources and information for others to become educated about the pressing need to strive for racial justice. Students share links to petitions, offer advice for safe protesting practices, create templates for emailing authorities, list bail funds and black-owned restaurants and businesses in need of support, and share videos documenting instances of police brutality at protests.” — Christopher Rim, Forbes

There are risks in organizing over social media, but it works 

“It kind of does make it hard to manage because you don’t know who’s coming. You don’t know the people showing up and what their intentions are. … [But] I think it is a way to get a lot of people together quickly.” — Community organizer Maryan Farasle to New York Times

People shouldn’t have to post online about a cause to prove that they care

“The requirement to perform our anger, our activism, our anguish online (and so immediately), creates a tiring dynamic that exacerbates already emotionally draining situations.” — Yomi Adegoke, Vogue

Posting once doesn’t create long-term change

“It’s a way for white people who aren’t comfortable talking about racism to avoid doing so entirely, while acting like they are doing something. Instead of having to confront this thing that makes you so uncomfortable, you can now post a square and feel like you did something.” — Tariro Mzezewa, New York Times

Social media platforms are skewed to favor certain voices

“Social media increases power disparities due to social class and organizational resources. … The result is the emergence of a dangerous digital activism gap, a gap that conservative movements understand and have increasingly used to their advantage.” — Jen Schradie, NBC News

Online activism must translate into offline action

“While today’s blackout was cool to see and momentarily inspiring, I hope you keep in mind that your post is worthless and superficial if it doesn’t result in action on November 3, 2020. ... Time to get to work.” — Joe Toscano, Forbes

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images