Social Media Activism: Making change in a digital age

Examples of Instagram posts focused on social justice in 2020. Since the killing of George Floyd, many people have taken to the streets and social media feeds to raise awareness about issues going on in the world. Photo originally on “Political Correctness: The Worried Youths’ Guide on What Not to Say” by Sarah Tachau

Examples of Instagram posts focused on social justice in 2020. Since the killing of George Floyd, many people have taken to the streets and social media feeds to raise awareness about issues going on in the world. Photo originally on “Political Correctness: The Worried Youths’ Guide on What Not to Say” by Sarah Tachau

Ian Sun, Opinions Section Editor

We are all aware that social media changed the way we live our lives. The obvious benefits of social media include long-distance communication, expanding one’s reach beyond a local community, and an unprecedented ease of access to information. With the COVID-19 pandemic that kept us home last year and forced people to go virtual, social media became a lifeline, especially for activist movements.

During the summer protests of last year triggered by the murder of George Floyd, millions of people turned to social media to raise awareness about racial justice and other causes. On Instagram, activists posted black squares, links to petitions, videos of protests, educational infographics, and more, reaching millions of users. On Twitter, they tweeted threads doing all the above, amassing millions of likes, retweets, and comments. 

Social media users quickly saw their feeds filling up with such content.

Students at Radnor High School also saw their feeds filling up with content promoting a change. Since the summer protests of 2020, more than 90 percent of students reported seeing a drastic increase in content promoting a change (which includes anything promoting certain arguments regarding relevant social and political issues) on their social media feeds. That same percentage of students surveyed reported that less than 25% of the content on their feeds was change-related before the summer protests, with a sizable 30% saying that they saw no such content. 

During the protests, however, over 80% of students reported that half the posts on their social media feeds had change-related content. Two in five students reported that more than 75% of their feed pertained to the current social and political movements, a significant increase compared to before George Floyd’s killing. 

About the increase of change-related content, one student said that the shift was “very useful not only to educate myself on the topic but to help others to hopefully educate themselves too or just have awareness.” Another wrote, “In my opinion, art and media are great resources to convey issues, and they can truly resonate within viewers on another level.”  

Indeed, a number of students at Radnor shared these posts that brought attention to social causes. About half of the students said that they shared a post at least once, with about a quarter sharing them more than once a week.  Students explained that they often share posts when they “believe [the posts] contain information that should be spread to those who aren’t as educated on certain aspects of social issues,” or when “the post struck [them] emotionally or communicated something in a really skillful way.”

Many Americans believe that social media is a valuable tool to raise awareness about certain issues. A Pew Research study conducted last September revealed that four in five Americans believe that social media is effective in raising awareness about social issues, and 77% believe that it creates sustainable social movements. For members of marginalized communities, 64% believe that social media is a key outlet to getting their voices heard. Radnor students say the same thing, rating social media’s effectiveness at raising awareness a 3.9 on a 1 to 5 scale. One student remarks, “These posts are useful because they help me to learn about the current state of the world both specifically and broadly.” 

However, social media is not without its flaws. Some argue that activism on social media can only go so far in making change. The same Pew Research study as referenced above says that three in four Americans think that social media activism “makes people think they’re making a difference when they aren’t.” Worse, some people think that social media is just a way of virtue signaling.

One Radnor student even noted that “[social media] made me feel as though people were just being performative, and not actually spreading useful information, just spreading cute and aesthetically designed posts about what happened.” Another stated, “I feel [the posts] are virtue signaling and not useful. The people sharing these posts do not care about the issues and are only interested in showcasing their moral superiority.”

In addition, four in five Americans believe that social media platforms distract people from issues that are more important. Students in Radnor agree, rating social media’s level of distraction at 3.9/5. “[The posts] help raise awareness to unknown issues or the scope of them, but eventually it’ll get inundated with social justice content and can be a bit distracting,” one student said, “like if you’re focused on one issue and then you see posts on a different issue, I’m not sure what issue to focus on.”

Other students warn about misinformation on social media. One student wrote that “the nature of social media, which allows for widespread and thoughtless reposting, can make the spread of misinformation dangerously easy.” Indeed, false information spreads six times faster than true information on social media. Another talked about the biased nature of posts, saying that they “only show what they want to show, not the whole truth” and that “one side is promoted and shoved in your face while the other side is censored.”

Still, it is undeniable that social media has shaped activism into what it is today. It has the power to spread awareness about issues a continent away but also lets misinformation mutate like a virus. Users summarize issues on social media into infographics reaching millions of viewers. As social and political issues continue to rise in our society, it will become more clear whether social media is merely performative, or if it can truly create change.