Activism in the age of social media

Published by Fardeen Sheikh on

Activism in the Age of Social Media

Amanda Funger | Avant-Youth

Due to the pandemic, many people are becoming involved with social justice movements through social media, which has become an increasingly popular avenue where a lot of people engage in activism. A Pew Research Center survey found that about one-third of social media users have used their platforms to show support for a cause.

Online activism (or slacktivism) is different from performative activism but these two terms can go hand in hand.

Performative activism is a term used to describe activism where a person’s main aim is to increase their social capital, e.g. increase their follower count or obtain more likes, rather than their devotion or support for a cause.

A slacktivist’s intention is to support their cause, operating mainly through social media because that may be one of the only options they have. They also try to support their causes by signing petitions, writing letters to government officials, or anything else that is not solely about being in the public eye.

But, this widespread activity has also led to people being criticized for engaging in performative activism. Influencers accused of performative activism have been criticized for hurting causes or not helping them at all; whereas alternatively, a positive is the fact that they are still getting the message out there and reaching many people.

According to Rhea Wunsch, the state director for March for Our Lives GA, “People are doing [performative activism] because it’s trending. No one’s willing to step out of the subjects or the trends, but it definitely has brought bigger positive results.” 

Wunsch says that social media has helped boost social justice movements, especially during the Get Out the Vote season, by increasing virtual engagement through phone and text banks asking people if they are registered to vote or if they plan to vote. She says that it has “shifted our stage and what we do with activism, but it has extended our reach a lot since we can reach a lot more people.”

Rupkatha Banerjee, an organiser who works with the ACLU of Georgia and They See Blue Georgia, explains that “activism and engagement as we know it has changed because we’ve had to translate from an in-person platform to online [due to the pandemic]. So the lanes of activism have taken on a different form simply because of the environment that we are in.” 

Banerjee states that people should get involved in ways that fundamentally connect with what they believe in and what aligns with their moral or political ideologies.

Banerjee discusses a talk by Angela Davis that was hosted by Georgia Tech for Black History Month, where she explained that activism has fundamentally changed since the 1960’s and 1970’s when she herself was a student activist. Davis stated that back then, they were organizing to bring people together for protests and meetings, it was a “snail mail process” because it was almost impossible to reach people. Davis said that the level of engagement that they had been able to achieve in the past wasn’t nearly the same as the level of engagement they’ve been able to achieve within the last couple of years. A lot of this was done with the help of social media engaging and connecting people on a global platform.

Social media inherently encourages performative activism, according to Banerjee, because “it is a lot easier to get away with looking like you are doing something with minimal effort now, whereas before in order be an activist or organize you had to attend a protest, attend a march; you had to work with an organization, you had to actively donate or partake in something that requires you to expand your emotional energy, but now it is so easy to appear a part of the movement, simply because you want to portray an image to somebody.” 

Wunsch also says, in contrast, there are some positives,  because it allows things such as people posting pictures with their “I voted sticker,” to trend, which encourages more people to vote. But the difference is that, posting that picture and encouraging others to vote is an active action that people took to make a difference in their community.

Banerjee said, “If people are talking about it, even if it is not with the purest intention, the point is that they are getting the message out for people to talk about. If they are circulating information in such a way that if somebody who can actually benefit off of it or somebody who is moved by it is able to pick it up, then I think we have progressed in a positive direction in terms of activism and how we are able to engage people in organizing and being vocally inclined.”

Banerjee also states that “performative activism is [more] about what you portray to people and what you can prove to people, and less about what you are actually achieving. So if you can shift your activism away from what you are showing to people and make it more about the conversations you are starting in your own life, then that is a great way to avoid being perceived as a performative activist. Less about how you are being perceived as an activist and more about what you are able to achieve.”

Both Banerjee and Wunsch agreed that an important way people can get involved in social justice movements without being perceived as performative activists is through mutual aids. 

Mutual aids are a mix of political education and charity. According to Wunsch, March for Our Lives, in particular, “planned an entire week of mutual aid action in Georgia to help houselessness in Atlanta by putting together bags with food, masks, socks, and deodorant.” They also include many other things houseless people don’t have access to (the interviewees used the term houseless in reference to people who do not currently have permanent housing and therefore, I have chosen to stick to this word). 

Wunsch says that it is a genuine activist attempt because it gives back to the communities they are working in.

According to Wunsch, in states such as Texas, mutual aid groups have done more to help Texans than their own state governments. 

Banerjee states that mutual aid collectives have expanded over the last summer and throughout the course of this past year, where people have come together and built their own economic support networks so they would not have to rely on the next stimulus or unemployment check because they saw that they were not coming. 

You can get involved and contribute to your communities that don’t necessarily have to be publicized. According to Banerjee, “Sharing graphics and information is important, but at a time when people are struggling to put food on the table, there is always a way to get involved to make sure your activism isn’t just you sharing information. It’s more about fundamentally helping people because that’s what organizing and activism is all about.”

The internet has become an important platform through which people can engage with causes they believe in, and the pandemic has only made it a bigger tool that allows people to support their movements. It is important to understand the value of online activism and the reach we’re able to achieve through it, but it is also necessary to reflect on our intentions for making posts about these causes. It is great to share critical information and make sure it reaches as large an audience as possible, but it starts to lean towards performity when the reason you make these posts is to show you support these causes without doing anything concrete. Some more substantial ways to show support might include doing things such as, signing petitions or participating in mutual aid collectives. The goal of activism is to do something that has a tangible impact on communities. 

As Banerjee had stated, the whole point of activism and organizing, fundamentally, is to help people. 

Therefore, ask yourself: Who you are helping? And recognize whether or not you are supporting the causes you care about in ways that go beyond social media trends. 

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Fardeen Sheikh

Fardeen Sheikh is from Stockholm, Sweden, and he has travelled the world at a very young age. Before coming to Atlanta, he’s lived around Europe and the Middle East. He has recently moved back to Sweden, and is going to study Journalism in City, University of London. Sheikh enjoys watching movies, drinking inordinate amounts of coffee, photography, writing and drawing–even with his best attempts–stick figures. He speaks Bengali, Hindi, French, English and Swedish, while learning a bunch of new things in his free time.

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