#Activism: How social movements are moving online

Social media’s ability to connect large groups of people anywhere in the world has changed the way we approach activism and social movements. Whether it’s sharing a hashtag to generate support for a cause or using Facebook groups to organize a protest, it’s become clear that modern activism relies on social networking.

“Amid cell-phone footage of protests and toppling statues, the Internet has been further inundated with what we might call activist media”

Jane Hu

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Social media provides an online space where people can come together to share ideas and plan events like protests and rallies. It can also serve asa platform to amplify and share the experiences of minority groups. Lived experiences of racial violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of oppression often drive the movements we see online. A prominent example of this is the “Me Too” movement, which aimed to raise awareness around sexual harassment and assault. Many of us turn to social media for news about these ongoing movements – during the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, for example, protest guides and screenshots of bail-fund donations were widely circulated online. 

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Research shows that people are not just reading about social movements online – they’re actively participating in them. A study from the Pew Research Centre found that roughly half of Americans had engaged in “political or social-minded activity” on social media in the past year. This activity could include joining a group relating to an issue or cause, encouraging others to take action, looking up information on protests, or using hashtags relating to a political or social issue. 69% of those surveyed believe social media is “important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues” while 67% believe social media sites can be used to create “sustained movements for social change”. 

“Posting to social media could be seen as actually doing something with decision, but is it actually using the energy to necessitate any change?”

Peter Suciu

Social media’s increasing role in activism has also generated some controversy: there’s an ongoing debate over whether posting online qualifies as a “valid” form of activism. The term “hashtag activism” was coined to describe “the act of showing support for a cause through a like, share or other engagement”. Critics question whether simply liking or sharing a post contributes to any real change or if it’s just a way to support a cause without taking any meaningful action. The debate around hashtag activism calls people’s motivations into question: are they really trying to make a difference, or are they just trying to make themselves look better?

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 Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it’s clear that social media now plays an important role in creating social change. Have you used social media to support causes you care about? What do you think of using social media as a form of activism?

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Why do we post on social media?

Have you ever wondered what drives people to post on social media? Are we just looking for likes and comments, or does it go deeper than that? As it turns out, there are many different motivations behind the posts we see on social media.

“Social media comes down to a simple basic human desire: the need to connect with other humans, to be part of a group”

Melissa Leiter, Social Media Today

Understandably, other people are a major motivation for why we post online. An article from King University explains that social media users “want to post to feel some kind of social acceptance from a group or a particular individual”. Similar to how positive reactions to posts can make us feel better about ourselves, they also help us feel more accepted by the people around us.

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Posting on social media is also linked to self-presentation, or “positioning yourself the way you want to be seen”. When we talk face-to-face, everything is in the moment, which doesn’t give us much time to think about what to say and how to act. When making a social media post, however, we can “construct and refine” how we present ourselves by choosing what to write and which pictures to share. In this way, social media gives us the power to control how other people see us.

This might be why we so often share our accomplishments on our social media accounts. Sharing big milestones – like getting a new job or graduating from school – is incredibly common on social media. By posting about our accomplishments, we present ourselves as successful. Posts like these also encourage positive reactions and acceptance from others.

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Our reasons for posting online all seem to link back to other people. We want to make a good impression on the people who follow us and to feel liked and accepted by them. Even self-presentation is all about controlling how we’re seen by other people. So, is it possible to post only for yourself, or does it always come back to the reactions you get from others? Are those reactions the whole point of social media? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Brands on social media: helpful or harmful?

Anyone who uses social media today has probably noticed that brands are becoming more and more active online, in ways that go beyond simply promoting their products. From interacting with competing brands to sharing memes and videos, brands are becoming fully integrated into the world of social media.

One of the biggest benefits social media has for brands is the way it supports interactive marketing campaigns. Brands like Air Asia have created competitions where followers must tag their friends for a chance to win. Accounts can also use hashtags to start viral campaigns that anyone can participate in, such as the #nomakeupselfie campaign that raised over 8 million pounds for cancer research. These types of marketing strategies can grow a brand’s following by encouraging users to interact with the company and with each other online. Brands have also fully embraced the culture of social media, from celebrity endorsements to pop culture references. The pet brand BarkBox, for instance, has taken full advantage of the internet’s appreciation for funny animal videos. Sharing these types of videos on platforms like TikTok has allowed the brand to grow its following and gain popularity, even among people who don’t own any pets.

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So how have consumers reacted to brands’ online presence?  

A 2017 study by the Sprout Social Index on brands’ use of social media revealed that creating a personality online can be good for business. The majority of consumers want to buy from brands who are honest, helpful, and friendly. Brands can craft this type of personality through the content they post and the way they interact with customers online. Interestingly, the results of the study suggest that engagement is the number one thing customers look for in a brand, over things like humour or pop culture references: 48% of consumers decided to purchase from a brand after they received help from the brand on social media. At the end of the day, consumers want brands’ social media to be a “customer care channel” – a place they can go to have their questions answered and their concerns taken care of.

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But brands need to be careful what they do and say online. 

Many brands are trying to be politically and socially conscious online, but these attempts don’t always impress consumers. Consumers want brands to take action instead of just talking about social issues. And these days, the internet makes it easy to figure out if a company’s statement actually matches their practices. If their commitment to diversity or inclusion, for instance, is inauthentic or inaccurate in any way, it will “quickly be debunked … and shared virally across the internet”. For example, Starbucks was recently criticized for refusing to allow its employees to wear Black Lives Matter clothing, arguing that the slogan was too “political”. People quickly pointed out that this rule contradicted the company’s commitment to antiracism. Companies that are socially responsible appeal to customers, but statements that are only meant to boost the company’s image can do more harm than good.

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Navigating social media as a brand can be risky, but ultimately it seems like it’s been beneficial for many different companies. Do you follow any brands online? If so, what do you like about their social media presence?

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Social media: a double-edged sword

Like many people, I’ve had to spend a lot of time stuck at home over the past year. During this time, I’ve found myself spending more and more time on social media, where the seemingly endless stream of content can keep me scrolling for hours. While it definitely keeps me occupied, it’s not always how I want to spend my time. For me, the pandemic has highlighted how social media can be both a blessing and a curse.

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Putting the “social” in social media

Obviously, social media is an important tool for social interaction. It can be used to stay in touch with friends and family no matter where they are in the world, which is even more necessary now that travelling is out of the question and so many of us are feeling isolated. I’ve also found that social media can act as a form of stress relief by providing a break from regular life. Spending some time watching funny videos or sending memes to friends can be a welcome distraction from the stress of life during a pandemic. Research seems to support these experiences: a study of young people’s social media use during the pandemic revealed that many people are using social media to connect to their friends and family, and often see it as a distraction or a way to beat the boredom of lockdown. 

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On the other hand… 

I’ve found that I often spend more time on social media than I’d like to. It’s so easy to get sucked in, especially when you’re spending long days stuck at home. Ideally, I’d spend those days reading or painting or journaling rather than constantly refreshing Twitter and Instagram. I also find myself using social media as a way to put off more important tasks like cleaning and school work. I end up feeling like I’ve wasted hours or even a whole day on my phone when there’s a million other things I could have been doing. 

The use of social media as a news source provides an interesting problem all on its own. The study I cited earlier found that many people are using social media to stay updated on the news. However, many of the study’s participants reported that the number of negative stories in the news has affected their mental health. I’ve found this to be true in my own life as well; I know a lot of people, including myself, find keeping up with current events to be stressful when the news always seems to be bad. 

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Finding a balance

It’s clear that social media can be both a positive and negative force in our lives. The question is, how do we balance these two sides? I’ve tried to manage it by limiting the amount of time I spend on social media each day. I start each day by making a list of everything I want to get done, and I try to avoid spending long periods of time on my phone until I’ve completed at least a few tasks. I don’t always succeed at avoiding social media, but having a clear plan for each day does help me stay focused. Do you find that you need to manage the time you spend on social media? If so, what strategies do you use? 

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