#Activism: how social media has changed the nature of how we make a difference

Multimedia reporting by Miranda Siwak

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Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

With 2014, there was a newfound surge of social media activism. From the incident in Ferguson to the viral Facebook ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, users have been extremely active tracking the latest trending events and incidents through hashtags and Facebook pages. Citizens have shared their passions and opinions related to causes and campaign efforts.


Derek Lackaff

“With the revolution in Iran, you saw people use social media to coordinate and spread information,” said Derek Lackaff, Elon University associate professor of communications and researcher into social media activism. “We saw social media was connected to people out of the region. There is a lot [of news stories] that is occurring everywhere, but the reason everyone knows is through images on Twitter.”

MediaSmarts, an organization based in Canada, focuses on making sure that young children use and consume social media in smart ways, as well as understanding how content is developed, Thierry Plante, Media Education Specialist for MediaSmarts, explained.

“Social media all happened through technology,” Plante said. “It uses the tools that young people are already using, tools that they are already familiar with, which makes activism easier to get into. In one of our reports, one teacher wanted to teach his students about what was going on in Egypt with the Arab Spring, so he connected his kids through Twitter with other young kids in Egypt. His classroom became much more knowledgeable and engaged.”


Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

The 2014 Cone Communications Digital Activism Study was created to answer questions from their clients and their industries about how an individual engaged online with social or environmental efforts, said Whitney Dailey, supervisor of CSR Insights & Intel for Cone Communications and co-creator of the Digital Activism Study.

“Social media activism allows everyone to be an activist, a philanthropist and a hero; each and every person’s voice can be heard, whether through individual comments or collective action with online petitions from the likes of Change.org or TakePart.com,” Dailey said.

Digital activism allows users on apps, websites and social media to engage in conversations, where they can make more educated decisions instantaneously, Dailey explained. Dailey discussed how social media activism has changed ways individuals can get involved in causes they are passionate about. By tweeting, voting, signing petitions and donating online, users are able to personalize their involvement in causes for an even greater impact.

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Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

“When it comes to digital engagement, organizations must keep in mind that a tweet or a like isn’t an end in itself but merely a gateway to further engagement,” Dailey said. “Our research backs this up: 64 percent of Americans said they would be more willing to participate in ways such as volunteering and donating after first liking or following an organization.”

Activism or Slackitivism?

With all the recent Twitter posts about political issues, a new term has been introduced: “slactivism,” or simply, fake activism through outlets like social media.

“Hashtags can catch on and go viral, are able to connect people otherwise not aware, however, it cannot make a difference in causing change,” Lackaff said. “People call this ‘hactivism’ (retweeting, sharing, posting), the first step, but most campaigns need real action.”

Plante explained how slacktivism is similar to a “one-button-click” form of activism; how people are able to “superficially participate and get involved.” He explained how such activism and use of social media allows people to filter out human interactions, allowing a greater disconnect between individuals.

“We’ve come across two main drawbacks of social media [activism]. The technology that there is right now does not really transmit all the communication cues that we have in-person through body language, facial expressions, tones of voice, which allows people to feel empathy. It is hard to feel that the other person is really there.” –Thierry Plante

A PBS article explains how “hashtag activism” is described as “using viral hashtags to raise awareness and foster discussions about specific issues and causes via social media.” Hashtags that have spurred viral social movements include #Kony2012, #BringBackOurGirls, #YesAllWomen, #HandsUpDontShoot and #HeforShe.

“Social media has proven itself very worthy in promoting causes,” social media activist of St. Louis Tami Nolan said. “It gets the word to the masses.”

In an article for NPR, radio personalities have reported that social media has shifted local cases to a national stage, such as the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases. These cases would have remained local news without the “excessive” posts, tweets and shares that social media provided.

Raising awareness

“[Social media] is most useful to raise awareness, it puts ideas on people’s radar, but it’s not sufficient on it’s own,” Lackaff said. “Social media is going to be a part of everything. It’s how everyone communicates, it certainly is going to play a role in activism.”

Lackaff explained how such platforms for communication have been normalized in society and will be used for everything, including activist causes. He does not see how there could be a way to slow social media’s progress and impact down in the future; it will keep growing and spreading virally.

“That’s where people are [on social media],” Plante said. “The Internet goes pretty wide into demographics. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. It is important as a society to look at the place it takes in our lives and to understand how that part of our life can be used to improve society; civic engagement and activism is a part of that. It’s worth it to understand what could we do with that; that interaction can be positive with society, and it already is.”


Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

Social media can help to raise awareness due to its accessible, broad reach, as compared to mainstream media outlets. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the CEO and executive director of MomsRising.org, explained how organizations can only grow if they listen to the public opinion, which is often echoed through social media.

“Social media allows organizations to listen to people because you can read responses on all types of social media,” Finkbeiner said. “It’s an important way to be in the dialogue and not just broadcasting the information.”

For causes and campaigns to spread widely through social media, authenticity of the message is important for people to be able to emphasize the impact it can have on individuals. Social media provides a platform for contributors to express what a particular cause means to them.

Can one hashtag change the world?

Hollywood screenwriter Shonda Rhimes’ commencement speech at Dartmouth College discussed how hashtags work well to promote social issues and raise awareness, however it cannot physically do anything to act on that. Rhimes, in her speech said, “Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter. But, a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not change anything.” While Rhimes believes hashtags are meant for entertainment purposes and is quite successful on those terms, other organizations acknowledge the importance of hashtags to get involved with the public and to raise awareness.

“Activism is an attempt to communicate and generate pressure that leads to real change,” Lackaff said. “Social media is a quick way to organize people.”

Hashtag trending

Hashtags, made famous via Twitter, were designed to identify key trends of communities and can help organize events by compiling the information in a singular way. It’s a way to follow and get involved with a conversation on a global scale.

“Hashtags allow communities of people interested in the same topic to talk about it and reach specific communities to start a conversation.” — Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

Starting with organizing around entertainment news, it has spread to global parts of the world and has played a huge role in many social movements, such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the implications of the events of tragedies, among others. Millennials create and use hashtags to raise awareness for those issues they care about. Oftentimes, the magnitude of an event is dependent on whether it is Twitter trending.

“I think social media activism is the way of the future,” Nolan said. “It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it never sleeps, whereas, mainstream media will only keep a topic relevant until the next big story. Social media has connected young people to politics and injustices all over the world.”

International connections on a global scale

The Emerging Media Initiative at Ball State University discusses how within recent months, the world has “unparalleled access to information about revolts in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.” Many companies and organizations use social media platforms as a way to spread their message regarding social issues and connect with those similar. One such firm, Women Empowered, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, was initially just a Facebook group, founder and CEO Shelly Ulaj said.


Shelly Ulaj

“Social media has allowed us to a build a loyal following and attract new members,” Ulaj said. “The use of social media is inescapable for all businesses. Without it, you are only doing your business a disservice. Social media is an integral part of all marketing initiatives.”

In today’s society, organizations must be able to create an online presence for their company, as a way to connect with people worldwide and raise awareness for their message. Using activism helps nonprofit organizations like Women Empowered spread their message and their audience.


Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

“Social media activism has allowed causes to have a further reach that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” Ulaj said. “We are able to connect with people and other organizations worldwide in a matter of seconds.  It is definitely more powerful than through in-person interaction, if anything, it enhances those real in-person interactions.”

One hashtag at a time

With the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the goal was to spread the message and raise awareness. While such organizations always welcome hands-on approaches to volunteering, using social media for promotion can be just as important as volunteerism. It’s meant, not to change the fate of the organization or to exact change within, but rather to get people engaged, to expand the message and the organization’s following, so that more people can get involved and help.

“If one cannot volunteer hands-on, they can help by promoting your organization via social media,” Ulaj said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to choose or to have a black and white approach. I think both are important and appreciated by any organization.”

Social media is crucial to create and foster a conversation, whether about ordinary topics or more important causes. By creating a relationship between people, social media allows those connections to share causes and messages that need attention and assistance. That’s how a message is spread and goes viral: by people’s connections.

“Hashtags allow others to follow a conversation they otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. The impact for Women Empowered and similar organizations is that it allows our mission to gain a larger audience and keeps the conversation going. Hashtags allow an online conversation to live on and creates a sense of community– it makes a difference.” –Shelly Ulaj

#HandsUpDontShoot: Using hashtags to spread a powerful message

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To see the complete graphic, click here. Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

There was a storm in social media after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014. Newsworthy information and differing opinions were major trends on Twitter and Facebook, using hashtags such as #Ferguson to spread the news virally. From there, hashtags such as #HandsUpDontShoot were spread to promote a more activist agenda and spread a political message to the global community.

“Social media has become my main method getting up to date information from varied sources,” Simckes said. “The news stations, in my opinion, have become so biased and sensationalistic that I find it difficult to watch and almost impossible to get unbiased facts about significant media events.”

Media outlets and citizens in Ferguson have taken to using Twitter and Instagram, mainly through images and hashtags, to stay updated and informed with the constant details of the events since the Aug. 8 shooting of Brown.

“As the death of Mike Brown unfolded in Ferguson, I saw images of his body in the streets and descriptions of to the moment events on Twitter and Facebook long before the local or national news media even picked up on the story,” Simckes said. “A major reason that Ferguson has stimulated a national movement is because of how easy it is to communicate and efficiently organize the world via social media.”

Social media can foster real-world interactions, reaching a larger, broader audience of users. Such users can use what is reported via social networking platforms and be able to stay informed and updated in a timely fashion. Nolan explained how when [local] news stations outside of Ferguson have decreased their coverage of the protests, social media “kept it alive,” and allowed it to spread even further. Social media helps to enable a greater real-life activism through the use of Twitter and hashtags. With the events in Ferguson, hashtags such as #blacktwitter and #handsupdontshoot helped to get individuals involved in the conversation and to connect with others who share the same views.

“The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is an excellent of example of a hashtag raising up a very important issue that the media isn’t covering,” Finkbeiner said. “It brought forward lot of information about racial profiling and police brutality in Ferguson. It is an excellent case study of how real people are becoming reporters and able to take pictures and report stories.”

The power of technology and the future of users

With the power of digital technology, users can get involved in several meaningful ways, from micro-volunteerism to online fundraising efforts, Dailey said. In the digital activism study, Cone Communications found that Americans are more likely to get involved in a cause or issue ‘offline’ after first being exposed to it online through social media. The digital activism study finds that Millennials are an integral part of the digital revolution and the spread of important causes through social media. Their brand is developed by promoting, discussing and taking action on issues that concern Millennials’ social personality and brands.

“This population segment seamlessly uses social media to tell the world what they stand for, with 71 percent using these channels as a platform to discuss issues they care about,” Dailey said. “Millennials understand the power of their collective social voice; nearly three-quarters feel tweeting or posting information about social or environmental issues online is an effective form of advocacy or support.”

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Graphic by Miranda Siwak.

Millennials prefer to use the platforms of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube the most for digital activism purposes, getting more involved in causes that they first discover via social media. Cone’s study indicates that 80 percent of Millennials are more likely to support a cause after first seeing it online, often by liking or following an organization or cause on those platforms.

“Millennials’ inclination to get involved online is only an indicator of what is to come,” Dailey said. “Marketers should keep a keen eye on the next group of digital rock stars, Generation Z, coming of age and regarded as even more socially and technologically savvy.”

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