MULVIHILL: The reality of social media activism

Local messages require a high level of interest before ever becoming national news stories

tahrir_square_on_july_29_2011

Most cited community groups and mosques as major organizing vehicles for the demonstrations in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Last week, The Cavalier Daily’s Editorial Board argued in favor of social media as a way to make causes visible for social activism. The board asserted that social media “expediently disseminates information and effectively unites people for a single cause.” This argument is valid, but the board greatly overestimates the impact of social media as a singular tool for change. Though it is a tool that can bring citizens together, it is not an omnipresent way to automatically start a social movement. Additionally, the board championed social media as a way to turn “local news into global news.” By presenting an overly broad argument about the effects of social media on activist movements, the board undercut the complexity of activist movements and overestimated the ability of the average person to make change using social media.

The assertion that social media can turn local news into global stories, while valid, is grossly overestimated. Social media websites can reach large groups of people — particularly when posts are actively spread — but they can also be a wasteland where interesting news and important issues are hidden amongst memes and cat videos. Social media is also rendered ineffective without active users sharing posts from person to person. Though the platforms represent a way for citizens to assert their beliefs and advertise for events, movements can be stunted before they get off the ground if they do not inspire immediate interest from users. One of the biggest misconceptions about social media platforms is that they reach all users around the world and are the easiest way to unite all citizens for social movements.

The board uses recent social protests in the Charlottesville community as evidence of social media’s influence, but they ignore the relatively small scope of that success. Given the connections between University students and Charlottesville residents — including news organizations, social media platforms and social groups — social media platforms do not represent the sole method of organizing. Additionally, though this example demonstrates the positive effects of social media on protesting and activism, the success is contained in a very small area. The organizing power in a small community is certainly commendable but, on a national or international scale, social media is not always as effective as the board asserts.

Social media sites have been given credit for much of the success of the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East but, in truth, few of the citizens of these countries had access to social media platforms. In Western countries, there is often an assumption that social media sites are as widely available around the world as they are in the United States and Europe, but in countries with repressive governmental structures, social media platforms are frequently either banned or out of reach to citizens financially. In an interview with protesters years after the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt, most cited community groups and mosques as major organizing vehicles for the demonstrations, rather than social media sites. Average citizens did not have the connections to social media which Americans believe they did.

Additionally, social media activism has given rise to the hashtag activism movement, which falls prey to many of the same issues plaguing generic social media activism. Hashtags do represent a uniting factor and a method through which people can communicate with others who have similar interests, but as some activists have noted, nothing is accomplished with just a hashtag. The hashtag must be powerful enough to mobilize large groups of people and, without other resources, it can be difficult to make change. The influence of social media relies heavily on the existence of outside organizational factors, which are ignored by the board. Change does not come with a single keystroke.

Based on the Editorial Board’s argument, it seems any college student could start a social movement through the use of social media. Ultimately, though, social media platforms have little reach without preexisting networks of motivated people who want to make change. Especially in countries where repressive governments control media systems, social media lacks the impact which Western leaders assert it has. Furthermore, without a high initial level of interest, local messages can never become international news stories. Social media platforms represent a tool for people to create change but the change is highly overestimated. Though these platforms are a simple way to transmit messages, the ability to reach large, diverse audiences is limited and many more tools are needed to create a successful social movement.

Carly Mulvihill is the Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at c.mulvihill@cavalierdaily.com.

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