Social Media Activism: What Is It? 

Social media activism involves using platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for collective planning, organisation and mobilisation for political purposes. Many have argued that social media sites act as an informal public sphere when physical public spaces are restrained or restricted. It acts as a space where citizens engage in political topics and express their own civic experiences without any physical limitations keeping them from engaging productively. Social media also allows for messages and content to be spread across the world, making it an ideal channel for social movements to rally interest outside of their own area. This means activists can easily generate international support, attention and solidarity for protests. Social media activism is often used interchangeably with hashtag activism, which uses hashtags to start trending conversations that advocate for policy responses to political causes and crises. Overall, social media activism is a political strategy that depends on the use of applications and sites to distribute, share and advertise a cause with the hopes of gaining support from local and global users. 

Activist Movements Aided By Social Media 

If you’re unfamiliar with the Arab Spring, it’s tough to make sense of social media’s activist history. So let’s start there. TW: Graphic image to follow. In 2010 a young Tunisian vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police harassment. A video of the incident went viral around the country and quickly set off a wave of protests against cruel authoritarian rule from the then President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which eventually led to his fleeing the country only a few days later. This was the first instance of an Arab leader being pushed out of his post as a result of popular protests. After that, similar protests occurred throughout Arab countries – namely Egypt, Yemen, Moscow, Bahrain, and Syria – in an attempt to overthrow authoritarian leaders and violent military regimes. The Arab Spring was one of the first mass popular protests where the world was able to follow events and occurrences live on social media. It became an important example of what some called ‘citizen journalism’, where everyday people and activists involved in the chaos were able to document and share the realities of the violence against citizens in these countries. 

Since then, similar instances have occurred internationally, namely #Slut Walk, and in South Africa, #ZumaMustFall and #FeesMustFall, but also more recently #AmINext. South Africa is known as the protest capital of the world, as its citizens often respond to crises and service delivery issues with toyi-toyi, violent and peaceful protest. Yet, in many of these instances, conventional news media has failed to capture the voice of the people most affected. Often, information is diluted and protestors are framed as rabble-rousers and hooligans with a taste for unjustified violence. News media also prefers to quote experts, politicians and state voices in these stories, often failing to include information from the protestors themselves. This can blur the quest and make audiences feel indifferent to political protest. The #MustFall protests responded to this issue by using social media to amplify their own frustrations and take matters into their own hands. This allowed for better discourse between citizens and filled a gap where citizen voices were not being included. #FeesMustFall was particularly successful in gaining widespread support, and many were amazed by the skilled organisation that leaders conducted purely online. When the time came for protestors to gather in person, the movement was organised and demonstrated an impressive common purpose and a unified list of demands. Since then, massive policy change has occurred, allowing for better access to state funds for higher education purposes. More information about this can be found here.

Pros and Cons: Voice, Censorship and Public Engagement. 

Clearly, social media is a tool for enhancing freedom of speech and making public issues visible to the world. Activists use social media to empower themselves with the tools to speak up against oppressive rules and educate leaders and citizens worldwide on their struggles. Without a channel for activists to advocate for change, who knows whether these popular protests would have had as much of a global impact and domino effect as they did? 

However, it is still important to note that social media is not the sole means of advocating for political change. It should be used as a supplementary tool to enhance the efficacy of physical protest strategies, and its foremost advantage is the widespread sharing of citizen voices. But issues like social media surveillance and censorship by state authorities can often reduce the effects of social media activism, and similarly, lack of content mediation and regulation can also lead to hate speech and misinformation that muddles the revolutionary waters. 

In this sense, we all need to be careful about how we engage with politics via social media, and how we consume information regarding popular protests. Attention must always be paid to sources, content type and the underlying message. Social media trends will not immediately lead to policy change or revolution if it’s not used in conjunction with intentional public action, policy-driven demands and strategic communication plans. But when used properly, it can certainly help the cause. So no, your tweets alone can’t save the world – but they can certainly help to share your voice with the world. 

Tell us: how much have you been influenced by reading about issues on social media?

You can read about social media more here