‘You have to do more than just post:’ Social media activism

Graphic by Elizabeth Hein.

AIDAN GREGG | MANAGING EDITOR | agregg1@butler.edu 

Since its inception over two decades ago, social media has changed our lives. For college students in particular, social media allows us to connect with long-distance friends, network for jobs and cyberbully each other to our heart’s content. 

Recently, however, my usual feed of videos of strange animals and high school acquaintances promoting their OnlyFans has shifted to become an influx of activism and political content. 

My timeline has come to reflect ever-developing social issues across the world. News on hateful legislation in Indiana, continuous anti-Black police violence and humanitarian crises in Gaza and Yemen, informative posts have dominated my timeline. 

Sophomore health sciences major Kamarie Fuller-McDade pointed to the time when they began to notice an increase in political content on social media. 

“I will say it really started in the summer of 2020 where the Black Lives Matter [movement], and George Floyd … [happened, which] was a really big kickstart,” Fuller-McDade said. 

Much of this content tends to focus on providing information in the form of news updates, infographics or quotes from activists and historical figures. In an era of increased censorship in schools, social media activism is an accessible method of educating those who may not otherwise be able to learn about social issues. 

However, social media activism has several serious drawbacks. 

Junior history-anthropology major Emma Severson said the ease with which misinformation and disinformation can spread on social media problematizes this kind of activism. 

“You can’t just post something because it’s got a nice graphic,” Severson said. “You should actually know that these are coming from reliable sources, or you have incidents like Jamie Lee Curtis, who shares something about ‘Israel, terror from the skies,’ and it’s a photo of children in Gaza [after a nearby bombing].” 

The general lack of critical media literacy skills among young people nationwide means that the people consuming disinformation are likely unable to discern what is true or false. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve seen legions of commenters unable to understand a PopCrave tweet. The presence of this kind of misleading or outright false information is particularly damaging to genuine efforts to educate others through social media, and to the state of political discourse as a whole. 

For some, sharing political posts on social media can take on an element of performative activism. Rather than sharing social justice-related content for the sake of promoting a legitimate cause or earnestly informing followers on a political issue, this kind of posting tends to be disingenuous. 

Dr. Ann Savage, a professor of critical communication and media studies, feels that politicians’ responses on social media to tragedies are frequently performative. 

“People will say [they support a cause] but not practice it,” Savage said. “Those Republican ‘thoughts and prayers’ [posts] after gun shootings, that’s all performative.” 

In an attempt to excuse themselves from concrete political action, statements and posts expressing “thoughts and prayers” engage in performative activism. This serves to make a person look better socially, without expending any effort on their part to address a social problem. 

In addition to a means of acquiring or maintaining social capital, Fuller-McDade identifies the perception of political causes as “trendy” as a reason for performative activism on social media. 

“That’s another downside [to social media activism] because [posters] treat it as a trend on social media,” Fuller-McDade said. “[Activist content] slows down, so I just hope people keep reposting.” 

When social justice issues are viewed as trends, they often are not afforded the time and attention they deserve. A social media algorithm’s tendency to cycle out content that is no longer “popular” leads audiences to forget about important issues. Unfortunately, major sociopolitical problems have become the new low-rise jeans. 

Even when posts contain reliable, earnest information, they can lack the nuance that is required to understand social issues. The nature of short-form content like an Instagram slideshow or a Tweet limits the degree of complexity that can be articulated. The issues implicit to social media formats can limit the impact social media can have on social issues. Small screens and limited word counts necessarily lead to a less complex message. 

Evidently, there is potential for social media to promote good, but also for it to do quite a bit of harm. With that said, there seems to be no sign of this form of social media activism going away, so what is the space for this kind of content, going forward? 

Savage explained that social media can be a tool for starting social movements by spreading the message and encouraging discourse. 

“​​Black Lives Matter was a hashtag and then became a movement,” Savage said. “So I do think [social media] is something that can initiate … discussion and questioning.” 

Social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, which developed from social media made headlines, inspired protests and continue to promote positive change worldwide. Social media can serve as a platform for concrete political action to grow. 

Severson similarly feels that while promoting awareness of social and political issues on social media is not a stand-in for traditional forms of activism — like public protest — it can provide an accessible outlet for activism for those who cannot physically engage in other methods. 

“There will always be something particularly powerful, going somewhere physically and doing things the old-fashioned way,” Severson said. “But if you’re in an area where you can’t get to any of these movements, I think it’s a good way to share information or just to do your part.” 

Social media can also supplement these more traditional forms of activism by announcing boycotts, protests and strikes. Fuller-McDade said that social media can also help promote these events by providing critical information on safety and best practices. 

Sites like Instagram have acknowledged their role in social activism by allowing users to fundraise for nonprofit organizations of their choice through a link in their bio. This allows users looking for concrete ways to contribute to social justice causes to put their money where their posts are. 

For social media activism to hold a valuable space in the political world, it cannot be the end all be all. Protesting, fundraising and education are important forms of collective action that social media can supplement. If you actually want to affect positive change in our society, social media cannot be the extent of your activism. 

Savage provided salient advice for those whose activism begins and ends with social media. 

“You have to do more than just post.” 


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