Social Media Activism: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

In the past few decades, we have seen how the world has changed with the exponential growth of technology and the ways in which we use it. Social media is one contribution of this growth that has become crucial to the typical “21st century life”. Even if you do not have it, chances are, you are not immune to its impact on the world. One of the most important effects social media has had on the world is its contribution to activism. From MySpace to TikTok and everything in between, the use of social media has unequivocally evolved. From a site meant to stay better connected to friends, social media has since turned into a platform of endless possibilities. Take Instagram for example: what started out as a photo-sharing app has today become a platform for so much more; such as business and social change. However, some would argue that it has created a flurry of problems for users, mainly relating to mental health, but its contribution to forming a well-informed and well connected society remains indisputable.

In 2020, the world was hit with a global pandemic and was forced to go into lockdown. This unprecedented time in isolation meant that the only window people had to the outside world was through their screens. Consequently, people were paying more attention to what was being spread on social media, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. While being around for quite some time, the movement skyrocketed in 2020 when it started to catch the attention of people across oceans, of different ethnicities and cultures- its successful revival owed to the easy method of spreading information on the internet. Since then, so many more issues have been brought to light as people strive to become more conscious of the injustices present in the world and what can be done about it. The very nature of social media activism- its accessibility- induces a feeling that even the Average Joe can play an active part in causing change. This has developed a generation that is extremely courageous in taking stands for sensitive issues that probably would not have received the same amount of publicity a few decades ago as it would today.

Social media plays an important role in increasing the accessibility to information as well as social movements. There is the problem of performative activism that has come with it. Performative activism is the use of online initiatives to increase a person’s social capital. In other words, it is taking advantage of a situation by putting up a show of support only to gain personal benefit. #BlackoutTuesday is an example of performative activism where feeds were flooded with black squares to express solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020. While expressing solidarity is great, it should not be done at the expense of other useful and relevant information. Performative activism is also prominent amongst influencers and brands. The rise of social media has since created a never-before-seen connection between public figures and their communities- allowing for pressure to be put on these parties by fans demanding to know where they stand on certain issues. With this comes the possibility of performative activism where said parties would showcase their support for a cause simply to please the public as well as to possibly capitalise on the issue. Due to this, the line between performative activism and social activism becomes blurred- so how do you tell the difference? How do you know what to support and share? The answer is to be selective about what you support. Notice that there’s a difference between activism and reactivism. If there’s an issue you really care about, don’t hesitate to do a little bit more research on the organisations supporting the cause. Be sure that the money donated or publicity you give to it actually contributes to the cause. Grassroots organisations, if you can find them, are a great place to start for most issues. 

While on the topic of performative activism, let’s go a little deeper on the topic of influencers and big brands. As mentioned before, having a platform where communication with the people is simple, people are able to demand to know their stances on matters they care about. During the peak of the BLM revival, it was evident that there were in fact people using the movement as a bullet used to take down public figures. If an influencer did not share enough about the movement, the public would put them under fire threatening to bring them down like many others with the powerful tool of, “cancel culture”. Let us all remember that silence is not synonymous to apathy. Yes, when given a platform and a huge following, we would expect these figures to use said platform to contribute to a greater cause, but-  what would you prefer, genuine care and support? Or false support simply to avoid criticism? When it comes to important issues that bring into question what justice is, we need to band together for the right reasons. Movements like these are not meant to be a trend or a weapon, they are real issues involving real people with more than real problems. Therefore, we need to question what our internet presence is when it comes to social media activism.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is the criminalisation of activism, especially when activism is being used to condemn a higher power. In Malaysia, as well as many other countries around the world, there are Sedition Acts (Legal definition of sedition: the crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction) in place to silence those who speak out. In our world, there are definitely people who are more courageous than others- those who are willing to call out the injustices they see and face the consequences head on believing that some causes are worth taking a hit for. Sedition Acts put into question a person’s freedom of speech. This means when sharing information or posting publicly about highly sensitive issues, you need to be aware of the possible consequences. Fight for what you believe is right, but understand that sometimes the fighting comes with sacrifice. The best thing you can do? Be aware of the laws in place and weigh out the consequences if you’re planning on making a major move.

It is hard now to imagine a world where we didn’t have social media activism with platforms such as Instagram and Twitter becoming such an integral part of the ‘woke’ community. Questioning the impacts of social media activism led me to wonder whether moments such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo would have received the global support it did should we not have had social media. With ‘wokeness’ it is believed that we, as a member of the human race, can achieve so much but it is worth noting that just awareness is not enough. Awareness needs to be followed by actions whether it be supporting grassroots organisations or signing a petition for international organisations to take firm actions against threats of genocide (such as the ones being faced by Uyghur muslims in China.) There is no manual on how activism should work, it’s not one size fits all, so as human beings with access to the powerful tool of social media- we need to use it to our advantage. Combating injustices by doing our research and being more than just blind consumers of information and allowing yourself to make judgements based on evidence is a great first step. I end this article with the reminder that silence is not the same as apathy and that everyone should be given a choice of how they choose to fit in this bigger puzzle that forms the picture of humanity. 

By: Diya Aisha

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