As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I spend a majority of my days glued to my phone. Scrolling through Instagram, memorizing TikTok dances, retweeting jokes, I move from app to app even as my screen time report and unfinished homework beg me to put my phone down. I never listen, opting to open Instagram once more to see if something has changed in the last 10 minutes. While I can admit that all the content I see on social media is not all constructive, I can also definitively say that within the last five months, I began to notice my feed change drastically. Current events and information about various social justice campaigns saturated my feed. From posts titled: “Let’s Talk About Yemen” to “Understanding the Electoral College,” infographics filled up my timeline. While I was no stranger to seeing activism on social media, George Floyd’s killing catalyzed a new age of social media activism.
On May 22, police officers suffocated George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bystanders filmed Floyd’s last moments and the video of Derek Chauvin, the police officer responsible for Floyd’s death, quickly became viral. Soon after Floyd’s death, marches and demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement demanded justice all over the country. Alongside the in-person demonstrations and protests, social media became a more accessible tool for activists to further their ideas and platform. Activism has grown on social media to provide everyday people with information and tools on how to view the world. With this influx of knowledge entering our feeds and becoming more accessible, it becomes especially prudent to question the role of social media in activism and what good activism looks like on and off the screen.
I recently discussed social media activism with high school junior, Stephanie Hu, founder of Dear Asian Youth. With around 45,000 followers and posts with hundreds of thousands of likes, Dear Asian Youth posts information about the Asian Diaspora as well as information about activism pertaining to the Asian community.
“I started it around April 30 this year to try and empower Asian youth around the world, while also recognizing and calling out the faults that exist within Asian culture…. The organization seeks to provide a safe space for all Asian students and youth,” she explained in an interview with The Politic.
Hu goes on to describe the importance of social media in activism as she has seen numerous infographics, discussing not only broad topics and world affairs but also about local news and everyday actionable items. From learning about the Rohingya conflict to how to fill out your voting ballot, Instagram infographics have been a powerful tool for education. Hu’s work with Dear Asian Youth has proven to be rewarding as Hu discusses seeing a community develop within her platform.
Hu continued, “It will start with comments first under our posts and then they will attend our webinars and then submit their writings. You can really see them becoming more comfortable with their identity”.
Social media’s impact lies in generating conversations that otherwise would not happen. Hu describes how she grew up in a very non-political household and states that “if it weren’t for Twitter raising me up, it would be hard to be as politically involved.”
Social media’s impact cannot be understated. In an interview with the New York Times, Princeton Professor Omar Wasow discussed the power within social media and how it allows “us to see a reality that has been entirely visible to some people and invisible to others. As those injustices become visible, meaningful change follows.” Hu revealed a similar truth: social media unveils an otherwise unknown or less discussed reality, incites reactions, and creates conversation.
Lucy Blakiston, co-founder of the Instagram account @shityoushouldcareabout, agrees with Hu. Boasting over one million followers, @shityoushouldcareabout posts a wide range of content from tweets providing commentary on current events to abridged analysis on world issues. Scrolling through their Instagram page, one could easily get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information present. With so much information, is it possible to overload the reader? I discussed this with Blakiston raising the question regarding how helpful Instagram activism and graphics actually are. Blakiston answered by describing the intention behind the social media page.
“We launched Shit You Should Care About because we want the world around us to be understandable, digestible and accessible. You shouldn’t need a degree to understand the jargon of the news, so we break it down,” Blakiston said.
The end goal, Blakiston stated, is that by creating these discussions, you bring to light issues that deserve more coverage and are more accessible. “If everyone understands what’s happening around them, everyone gets a say in how to change it.”
Both @shityoushouldcareabout and @dearasianyouth were created to educate everyday people and give them the resources to make informed decisions about their actions and perceptions of the world. The beauty of social media is that these same people, now informed and emboldened, can go onto their personal platforms and post, inciting a domino effect. I witnessed this first hand with a classmate of mine from high school.
Before entering her freshman year at Colorado College, Sophie Dellinger had been posting on her Instagram about a variety of topics. Opening her Instagram stories, I was able to learn about petitions, fundraisers and legislation being brought up in both the local and national area. Dellinger has been an activist for a large part of her life. She tells me that she was always interested in social justice growing up. While she was able to do research and educate herself about social justice early on, it was her social media account that allowed her to reach a larger audience with her activism. Alongside classmate Beatriz Sanchez, she advocated from stronger Title IX policies in Boulder Valley School District. Dellinger strengthened the district’s policies on Title IX to create a better, safer space for students who were victims of sexual assault.
“We launched our petition on Instagram and Facebook, and we received over 1,000 signatures in two days by only reaching out on social media. The amount of signatures we received allowed us to be respected and taken more seriously by the Board of Education when we presented our demands to them in late May, and eventually led to the opportunity to revise and edit their new Title IX policy,” Dellinger said. She went on to describe how social media allowed her to give a greater platform and the momentum to a cause she cared about.
But Dellinger’s utilization of social media is not an isolated event. Opening Stanford freshman Andrew Hong’s Instagram stories always opened a gate of discussion. Hong posts not only about his activism and work as an organizer for many political campaigns, but also posts polls asking his audience questions that range from the importance of voting rights for incarcerated individuals to people’s reactions to socialism.
Hong powerfully interpreted activism in an interview with The Politic, “activism isn’t simply a hobby or an extracurricular activity. It’s a way to care for your BIPOC, LGBTQ, and working class brothers and sisters…. We have a duty to reduce the harm of our institutions to support communities oppressed by American elite”.
Hong’s work is a window into social work on social media. Where many people view activism as an opt-in activity, Hong argues that it is the duty of those who hold a platform to utilize it. Like Dellinger, Hu, and Blakiston have proven, there is always space to elevate important issues. When a person views a post, they learn from it.In that case, social media provides a powerful tool to do so, and thus, it is inherently our responsibility to meet the moment.
That being said, social media is not a perfect medium for activism. Social media activism has its flaws. A prominent one is performative activism, which is the act of posting purely for show or aesthetic. In my discussion with Hu, she describes how activism can easily turn into an aesthetic, allowing people to think that posting a simple black square or a colorful graphic can replace tangible change. Hong agrees adding that while performative activism gets the word out, the belief that activism is limited to social media contributes to the problem. Social media allows lesser known conversations and issues to take center stage. Moreover, oftentimes we only learn about new issues when we are actively pursuing knowledge. The burden is on the individual to learn and educate themselves. Social media shifts this burden and places issues front and center.
Crossing this barrier allows for more information to spread. However it is essential that your social media actions exist outside of the virtual realm. The main barrier that performative activism presents is that it builds up the facade of change. In our efforts to better communicate and inform about specific issues, we want to exercise caution so that we do not force complex topics into black and white boxes. At the heart of the problem with performative activism is the fact that many people limit their activism to their social media. They believe that reposting is enough to enact change.
However, it’s not easy to let go of performative activism, oftentimes many don’t even realize we’re doing it. How do we avoid performative activism?
Blakiston commented that this was something that she struggles with. She approaches the Instagram account with the mindset of “providing not just problems—but solutions. This isn’t always easy, nor is it always possible—but at the very least we try to follow an anti “one and done” policy.”
Despite the range of information social media provides the user, its limitations cannot be overlooked. Dellinger expands on this when she stated, “If you are posting information that you find relative and important on your platform, you should be doing work outside of social media to raise awareness and confront the issues you have raised.”
We spend a large amount of time on our phones. Social media has allowed us to connect with each other not only over tweets and TikTok videos but also over political issues and social justice causes. In addition to sharing memes and quoting tweets, social media’s versatility should not be taken for granted. In fact it is our responsibility, if we are to call ourselves activists, we must utilize social media to further our platform.