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Digital Activism Rising: What’s Been Done & What Needs Doing

Digital Activism Rising: What’s Been Done & What Needs Doing

By Tanja Grubnic & Camilla Holm

By Tanja Grubnic & Camilla Holm

The digital age has ushered in a new generation of activists who have been gaining notoriety worldwide—the magnitude of which would be otherwise inconceivable without the help of social media. Movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MilkTeaAlliance have become everyday topics of dinner conversation (and arguments!)—and have resulted in sweeping historical, cultural, and legal changes around the globe.

The digital age has ushered in a new generation of activists who have been gaining notoriety worldwide—the magnitude of which would be otherwise inconceivable without the help of social media. Movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MilkTeaAlliance have become everyday topics of dinner conversation (and arguments!)—and have resulted in sweeping historical, cultural, and legal changes around the globe.

Global activist movements do not occur in a national or culturally specific vacuum, but rather intersect with and inspire one another. In this post, we’ll share a broad introduction to the rise of digital activism and the need to further study it.

Digital activism is making an impact—locally and globally     

#MeToo, to begin with, has led to the implementation of new laws criminalizing sexual violence against women in societies, like Iran, where such laws did not exist prior. Global activist movements transform when they cross through different nations and intersect with other cultures. As well as covering multiple platforms, with content adapted to fit the different platform cultures, what all of these movements have in common is that they create an activist public around a specific hashtag, generating other sub-hashtags related to more specific parts of the bigger, ongoing movement. 

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is one of the largest in U.S. history. First appearing in 2013, the hashtag responded to systemic racism against black people in the American criminal justice system. The hashtag ushered in the creation of grassroots activist groups and public protests not only in the U.S. but on all seven continents.

In Canada, the #1492BlackLane movement successfully protested Foxgate Developments’ unlawful purchase of Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) territory for new housing at 1492 Black Lane in southern Ontario. Since July 2020, Haudenosaunee Land Defenders have occupied space both online and off, physically halting construction through protest demonstrations while also attracting significant traffic on Twitter with internet activity. The online movement amplified the government’s ongoing, consistent disregard for treaty commitments and the unceded territories of Indigenous nations across the Canadian state. The circulation of information on social media boosted national awareness about a local dispute minimized by the mainstream media. Social media has also helped the Land Defenders raise almost all of their $500,000 goal for legal defense on GoFundMe to support activists who are still facing criminal charges (they’re only $12,000 away from their goal! To donate, click here). 

A smaller hashtag, but just as forceful in enacting change, is #LGBTFansDeserveBetter, a fan-led activist movement resulting in—and still producing—a much needed dialogue between the public and the film industry on the tropes and storylines used for LGBTQI+ characters and the cultural and social significance they have on the LGBTQI+ community.

These are but a few examples of an innumerable many. A wide range of activist movements has emerged and inspired change locally and globally through social media, not only operating through hashtags but also as content produced to be shared, remixed, and re-used.

The bad side of digital activism 

And yet, these movements are certainly not free from critique. Social media–born forms of activism have inspired significant changes, but they have also incited spinoff activities. Slacktivism, a combination of the words “slacker” and “activism,” is a disingenuous form of engagement with activist movements through passive tweeting, commenting, sharing, et cetera without any intention of contributing to such causes in a meaningful way.

In June 2020, for example, a #BlackLivesMatter-inspired movement called #BlackOutTuesday encouraged everyone to post a black square on their Instagram in solidarity with black people calling for systemic change in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The result? A form of performative activism labeled inauthentic and unengaged. In fact, the surge of black squares overcrowding vital voices even prevented some critical information from reaching anyone, like details about protest times, locations, and other messages from movement leaders. 

Social media activism can also intersect with “cancel culture,” a phenomenon that has left many divided. “Blocking” and “unfollowing” those we disagree with has arguably become universal in our social media-driven society. But cancelling out opposing viewpoints does not make them go away. While “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” have been captivating concepts applied to warn against this, most scholars have debunked these concepts as being relevant for the majority of the public’s internet behaviour, simply because we participate in a multitude of different publics online.

For those few extremist groups who do create their own echo chambers or filter bubbles, however, social media has given them more power to become visible and rally as mobs against people speaking out, with no other goal than to harass them into silence. To be an activist online today requires thick skin should they suddenly come after you. 

Platforms may not always be capable of supporting safe spaces and healthy debate. Some social media users are reluctant to engage with others who oppose their viewpoints due to the uncontrollable nature of algorithms, which ironically give internet trolls a bigger platform to share their hateful messages with an audience should their target respond. Sometimes, hiding that offensive tweet is louder than saying anything at all.

Other times, platforms directly hinder the digital rights of people by taking down activist posts. Last year, Facebook collaborated with the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Justice in silencing any criticism of Israel by removing the posts of Palestinian activists. This censorship led to the campaign “Facebook, we need to talk.” Platforms can become a place not for raising your voice and participating in activist practices, but instead for being silenced by the corporations running these platforms. 

Digital activism as virtual pop culture      

Digital creators, like instapoet Rupi Kaur, often centre their content around activist concerns. Kaur shot to fame by protesting Instagram’s sexist “community guidelines” after she uploaded a photograph of herself wearing sweatpants with a menstrual bloodstain twice removed by the platform. Kaur successfully pressured Instagram into re-uploading the photo after she criticized how near-pornographic images of women, including underage girls, circulate freely on the app while a photograph of a fully-clothed woman with a small leak is offensive and inappropriate. Kaur’s post garnered millions of views and over one hundred thousand new followers. Kaur continues to use her social media presence as a space for activist formation regarding feminist politics. Her poetry, thematically, is in keeping with her activist work too.

Digital activism also intersects with the traditional world of Hollywood. #OscarsSoWhite brought significant attention to the 2015 Oscars Awards Ceremony for nominating only white actors in the lead and supporting categories. The hashtag drew attention to the fact that diverse actors have been minoritized and grossly undervalued in the film industry. Viral discussions about racism in Hollywood pressured influential gatekeepers, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to respond with vows to change.

A popular comment that fans often leave on their favourite celebrity’s social media is “thanks for using your platform”—that is, for using your access to a large audience to advocate for a social cause. The word “platform” can refer to a famous person’s elevated position in society, but also, a virtual platform is symbolic of the literal object itself: as in one’s social media account can elevate them to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Online platforms allow public figures to reach millions of people, just as Kaur did. 

In many senses, activism is well-suited for social media. Before the internet, we raised awareness for a social cause by standing on a soapbox in a town square. Today, we use our platforms to broadcast messages to the entire world. Activism in the digital sphere takes place in “the global village” we all share.

But, then again, only if the platform allows it. 

The need for research on digital activism     

Studying digital activism is important because activism is a complex and growing part of digital culture that can help raise awareness about pressing issues even as it also creates problems. Digital activism has a bad side, as we saw—one that we all need to learn more about. This field of research is bourgeoning with debate regarding platforms, algorithms, echo chambers, social justice, legal discourse, fame, feminist discourse, identity formation, and more.

Social media has spawned a new generation of digital activists, and there are many questions to ask

Has the increased visibility of activist movements across the world translated to accelerated, actual change, or has it merely presented the illusion of such change? What has changed, and what has stayed the same? What do we make of the unethical aspects of social media—data harvesting, algorithmic racism (“Jim Code” as a new “Jim Crow”), and censorship? By that same token, how has social media provided a space of community, healing, and change-making for minoritized voices?

These questions and more provide curious thinkers with opportunities to study digital activism from a host of different perspectives. Much work has certainly been done, but there’s more that needs doing to better understand and support digital activism. 

Global activist movements do not occur in a national or culturally specific vacuum, but rather intersect with and inspire one another. In this post, we’ll share a broad introduction to the rise of digital activism and the need to further study it.

Digital activism is making an impact—locally and globally     

#MeToo, to begin with, has led to the implementation of new laws criminalizing sexual violence against women in societies, like Iran, where such laws did not exist prior. Global activist movements transform when they cross through different nations and intersect with other cultures. As well as covering multiple platforms, with content adapted to fit the different platform cultures, what all of these movements have in common is that they create an activist public around a specific hashtag, generating other sub-hashtags related to more specific parts of the bigger, ongoing movement.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is one of the largest in U.S. history. First appearing in 2013, the hashtag responded to systemic racism against black people in the American criminal justice system. The hashtag ushered in the creation of grassroots activist groups and public protests not only in the U.S. but on all seven continents.

In Canada, the #1492BlackLane movement successfully protested Foxgate Developments’ unlawful purchase of Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) territory for new housing at 1492 Black Lane in southern Ontario. Since July 2020, Haudenosaunee Land Defenders have occupied space both online and off, physically halting construction through protest demonstrations while also attracting significant traffic on Twitter with internet activity.

The online movement amplified the government’s ongoing, consistent disregard for treaty commitments and the unceded territories of Indigenous nations across the Canadian state. The circulation of information on social media boosted national awareness about a local dispute minimized by the mainstream media.

Social media has also helped the Land Defenders raise almost all of their $500,000 goal for legal defense on GoFundMe to support activists who are still facing criminal charges (they’re only $12,000 away from their goal! To donate, click here).

A smaller hashtag, but just as forceful in enacting change, is #LGBTFansDeserveBetter, a fan-led activist movement resulting in—and still producing—a much needed dialogue between the public and the film industry on the tropes and storylines used for LGBTQI+ characters and the cultural and social significance they have on the LGBTQI+ community.

These are but a few examples of an innumerable many. A wide range of activist movements has emerged and inspired change locally and globally through social media, not only operating through hashtags but also as content produced to be shared, remixed, and re-used.

The bad side of digital activism 

 

 

And yet, these movements are certainly not free from critique. Social media–born forms of activism have inspired significant changes, but they have also incited spinoff activities. Slacktivism, a combination of the words “slacker” and “activism,” is a disingenuous form of engagement with activist movements through passive tweeting, commenting, sharing, et cetera without any intention of contributing to such causes in a meaningful way.
 

 

In June 2020, for example, a #BlackLivesMatter-inspired movement called #BlackOutTuesday encouraged everyone to post a black square on their Instagram in solidarity with black people calling for systemic change in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

The result? A form of performative activism labeled inauthentic and unengaged. In fact, the surge of black squares overcrowding vital voices even prevented some critical information from reaching anyone, like details about protest times, locations, and other messages from movement leaders.

Social media activism can also intersect with “cancel culture,” a phenomenon that has left many divided. “Blocking” and “unfollowing” those we disagree with has arguably become universal in our social media-driven society. But cancelling out opposing viewpoints does not make them go away. While “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” have been captivating concepts applied to warn against this, most scholars have debunked these concepts as being relevant for the majority of the public’s internet behaviour, simply because we participate in a multitude of different publics online.

For those few extremist groups who do create their own echo chambers or filter bubbles, however, social media has given them more power to become visible and rally as mobs against people speaking out, with no other goal than to harass them into silence. To be an activist online today requires thick skin should they suddenly come after you.

Platforms may not always be capable of supporting safe spaces and healthy debate. Some social media users are reluctant to engage with others who oppose their viewpoints due to the uncontrollable nature of algorithms, which ironically give internet trolls a bigger platform to share their hateful messages with an audience should their target respond. Sometimes, hiding that offensive tweet is louder than saying anything at all.

Other times, platforms directly hinder the digital rights of people by taking down activist posts. Last year, Facebook collaborated with the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Justice in silencing any criticism of Israel by removing the posts of Palestinian activists. This censorship led to the campaign “Facebook, we need to talk.” Platforms can become a place not for raising your voice and participating in activist practices, but instead for being silenced by the corporations running these platforms.

Digital activism as virtual pop culture

Digital creators, like instapoet Rupi Kaur, often centre their content around activist concerns. Kaur shot to fame by protesting Instagram’s sexist “community guidelines” after she uploaded a photograph of herself wearing sweatpants with a menstrual bloodstain twice removed by the platform. Kaur successfully pressured Instagram into re-uploading the photo after she criticized how near-pornographic images of women, including underage girls, circulate freely on the app while a photograph of a fully-clothed woman with a small leak is offensive and inappropriate.

Kaur’s post garnered millions of views and over one hundred thousand new followers. Kaur continues to use her social media presence as a space for activist formation regarding feminist politics. Her poetry, thematically, is in keeping with her activist work too.

Digital activism also intersects with the traditional world of Hollywood. #OscarsSoWhite brought significant attention to the 2015 Oscars Awards Ceremony for nominating only white actors in the lead and supporting categories.

The hashtag drew attention to the fact that diverse actors have been minoritized and grossly undervalued in the film industry. Viral discussions about racism in Hollywood pressured influential gatekeepers, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to respond with vows to change.

A popular comment that fans often leave on their favourite celebrity’s social media is “thanks for using your platform”—that is, for using your access to a large audience to advocate for a social cause. The word “platform” can refer to a famous person’s elevated position in society, but also, a virtual platform is symbolic of the literal object itself: as in one’s social media account can elevate them to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Online platforms allow public figures to reach millions of people, just as Kaur did.

In many senses, activism is well-suited for social media. Before the internet, we raised awareness for a social cause by standing on a soapbox in a town square. Today, we use our platforms to broadcast messages to the entire world. Activism in the digital sphere takes place in “the global village” we all share.

But, then again, only if the platform allows it.

 

The need for research on digital activism

Studying digital activism is important because activism is a complex and growing part of digital culture that can help raise awareness about pressing issues even as it also creates problems. Digital activism has a bad side, as we saw—one that we all need to learn more about. This field of research is bourgeoning with debate regarding platforms, algorithms, echo chambers, social justice, legal discourse, fame, feminist discourse, identity formation, and more.

 

Social media has spawned a new generation of digital activists, and there are many questions to ask

 

Has the increased visibility of activist movements across the world translated to accelerated, actual change, or has it merely presented the illusion of such change? What has changed, and what has stayed the same? What do we make of the unethical aspects of social media—data harvesting, algorithmic racism (“Jim Code” as a new “Jim Crow”), and censorship? By that same token, how has social media provided a space of community, healing, and change-making for minoritized voices?

These questions and more provide curious thinkers with opportunities to study digital activism from a host of different perspectives. Much work has certainly been done, but there’s more that needs doing to better understand and support digital activism.