Quest For Sustainable Change: Looking Deeper Into Social Media Activism

As midnight struck, the first same-sex marriages in the United Kingdom took place. Love won in London, in Brighton, in all of England and Wales. It was March 28, 2014.

Days like this are easy to pull out of our collective memories thanks to social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It may even be more accurate to say that they have come to live in our shared consciousness. An advanced search for #lovewins on Twitter yields the most recent tweets on the progress of marriage equality worldwide. Keep scrolling down, and you’ll find yourself swimming in a stream of rainbow flags and hearts and images that date back to the first use of the hashtag on Twitter.

Raising awareness on the legal rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ) community members is just one example of social media activism. In 2014, other similar campaigns received love from global citizens, such as #BringBackOurGirls, which was related to the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 school girls in Chibok, Nigeria.

There is no doubt that hashtag-fueled movements have become the norm in our mobile, borderless world. Now, the question we want to ask concerns not only how effective they are but also how the activists plan to sustain them using new technologies. After all, the movements that count are those that have created a lasting impact.

Think back to the Women’s Liberation Movement in ’60s Britain. It brought with it a succession of changes, from the launch of the contraceptive pill in 1961 to the legalisation of abortion in ’67, to the election of Margaret Thatcher as the first woman prime minister in ’79, and to the achievement of Julie Hayward as the first woman to win a case under the amended Equal Pay Act in ’88.

Real-time yet short-lived?

The grassroots campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which was meant to draw attention to the inaction of the Nigerian government, was quick to seize public imagination. It trended fast, as well as far and wide. People from everywhere tweeted their support, with famous personalities posting selfies in which they’re holding a sign bearing the hashtag.

But critics questioned the objectives of the supporters. In pressuring their government to intervene, some people who spoke up online showed they weren’t aware of the possibilities of “how the Nigerian government and surrounding region could respond to Boko Haram’s actions,” as Newsweek pointed out.

There was no easy solution to the problem. There were also no obvious next steps for the Nigerian government, the publication added, as the aims and objectives surrounding the campaign weren’t clearly defined.

In another article discussing the pitfalls of social media as a revolutionary tool, the Independent wrote: “Activists and ‘clicktivists’ might connect and pay attention to an issue for a short amount of time, but they often fail to engage fully in the struggle.”

There is truth in the finding that activists must face as they bring their advocacies online and deploy their respective messages using digital tools. Vague goals should have no place in their campaigns. They should devise a strategy that reflects the succession of changes that the likes of the Women’s Liberation Movement were able to accomplish.

Community engagement should go beyond the hype of hitting the Post or Tweet button. Still, activists should explore new technologies and never stop testing mediums: do they craft an emotionally-compelling video, produce a relevant series of podcasts, or organise meet-up events to educate and enable supporters to act sustainably and work towards creating a lasting impact?

By all means, once they’ve defined their objectives, supporters should participate in online discussions and debates. But they should follow it up with acts of protest, public marches, boycotting and divestment, and direct communication with the relevant authorities.

The Independent nailed the issue of short-lived social media activism in the head:

“Building trust in marginalised or oppressed communities takes time, effort, and sustained interactions, and this requires routine face-to-face contact over a long period. When movements mobilise without having earned this sense of trust and internal unity, they may be more likely to succumb under pressure. Participating in digital activism can give the impression that one is making a difference, but as internet sceptic Evgeny Morozov argues, creating real change requires far greater dedication and sacrifice.”

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