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Weighing the effects of social media activism

<onsidering the effect that social media exerts upon activism, it’s important to keep two things in mind. Firstly, hardly anything has purely benign benefits. Every effect will have a mix of positives and negatives, pros and cons. Social media isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. Therefore, the only way to judge whether social media does play a positive role in supporting activism is to weigh it on a cost-benefit analysis. Secondly, the point of activism is to spread social progress or push some sort of motive or change. If you don’t accomplish that, then it’s an ultimate failure. With those two things in mind, I’m going to go over both the positive and negative effects of social media on activism.

The most obvious positive effect of social media is the outreach it provides. These platforms have bases of millions of people that can be reached. A message can spread further online than anywhere else. It can spread to people who might never have gotten it anywhere else. It can take on new meaning, or it can explode into popularity, bringing awareness to millions upon millions of people. The Women’s March and the travel ban protests are good examples of protests that helped spread because of social media outreach, forming faster and greater than what would have previously been possible.  In addition, social media breaks the previous reliance upon news media that has plagued social activism for years. The perspective of the media is no longer the determining factor on whether the movement is perceived as good or bad, or whether the movement gets covered or not. Yes, social activism spread without social media, obviously. Yes, some of the biggest movements ever happened before Twitter. That’s all true. However, social media simply allows a much broader array of movements, a larger platform to work on and far more coverage to work with.

There are always negatives, though—even some negatives that directly counteract positive effects. Like in the case of what I call pink-shirt activism. Pink-shirt activism occurs when somebody does something to represent the cause while not actually helping at all, like wearing pink clothing to support breast cancer awareness and doing nothing else.

Spreading awareness can only go so far. For a more recent example, look no further than the ALS ice bucket challenge, which took social media by storm a few years ago. The challenge eventually reached a point where ALS no longer played a role, and it was just stupid kids challenging each other to dump water atop their heads. Social media diluted the point, and the challenge lost meaning. An even worse scenario can happen on, say, Twitter, where people can drop a hashtag in support of a movement and feel like they’ve accomplished something when they didn’t actually do anything. The social movement simply becomes a fad, something to throw support at while doing nothing for it. That can and will happen a lot.

Additionally, social media can confuse the message or point of the movement just as much, and oftentimes more, than news coverage can. Social media isn’t an accurate or non-partisan platform—just the opposite, actually. The advent of fake news has proven that to be true time and time again. Social media can exceptionalize rogue elements in a protest as much as and oftentimes more than the news. We need not look further than the antifa in current protests as an example of that effect. It distorts the original message to match partisan bias and turn a movement into a perceived enemy by selectively covering the movement.

While there are clear positives and negatives, weighing both of them shows that the positives hold the clear advantage. A new platform with millions of potential eyes and ears helps social activism too much for the negatives to outweigh it. And yes, while a lot of those eyes and ears might dilute and misunderstand the original message, social media still allows for much broader outreach than ever before. Broader outreach means more potential people, and more people means that the movement can gain momentum. A throwaway hashtag doesn’t mean much at all, and it would be better if that person were to actually do something. However, while social media leads to more examples of pink-shirt activism, it also helps spread genuine interest and change. With social media, there is more room for movements to spread than ever before.

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