More than half of Americans have reported being civically active on social media last year. They believe that these platforms give a voice to underrepresented groups and their issues, is important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues, and creates long-lasting social movements. But what effect to they really have?
Benefits of Online Activism and Advocacy
- Visibility and reach
- Easy to connect, organize, and learn
- Immediate response to current events
Methods of activism and advocacy that involve marching, calling, or boycotting may not be an option for some people. Whereas online options like petitions and donations offer those with difficult schedules or impairments a way to participate. And, like the internet, it allows people to connect with and learn from a larger community all across the world, letting people join any cause they are passionate about.
Social media can also bring awareness of current events and resulting action much faster, spawning hashtags and campaigns within hours. Many of these internet campaigns have also gone viral, reaching millions of people world-wide.
A study on the use of social media during the Arab uprisings found that it acted “like a megaphone,” alerting the rest of the world what was going on in these countries. The Women’s March, which takes place in cities all over the world, began on Facebook and is streamed on various social media platforms every year. The BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been used over 30 million times on Twitter. And the Stoneman Douglas High School students used social media to galvanize the rest of the country to march, boycott, and protest after the Parkland shooting.
But there is a question of the effectiveness of these online campaigns.
Challenges for Online Activism and Advocacy
- Clicktivism / slacktivism
- Lack of in-person connection
- Difficult to make direct impact
- Security and privacy
The Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of people think that “social media makes people believe they are making a difference when they really aren’t.” While they may raise awareness, they don’t necessarily earn lasting commitment.
The Save Darfur Facebook page was the largest Facebook cause of its time, amassing over one million people. However, during its height from 2007 to 2010, researchers found that less than 3,000 provided donations which totaled around $90,000. For comparison, the wider Darfur campaign raised over $1 million in just 2008. The researchers concluded that in this case, “Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.”
Another study suggests that the reason for the disparity between these two types of campaigns is due to the visibility of membership on social media, where the visibility itself is the main reason for joining the cause. The study found that those in public advocacy groups were less likely to donate than those who joined in private.
This is often called slacktivism or clicktivism, where people are only willing to perform a token display of support but are unwilling to devote effort or commitment to enact a meaningful change.
But activism and advocacy is about more than just donations. Spreading awareness of issues can help encourage people to vote for certain laws or measures, or decide where or where not to shop. Online petitions like on change.org can show elected officials where the public stands on certain topics. And online campaigns like #MeToo have proven to be able to ignite unity and the strength to call out abusers.
If you are interested in participating in online activism and advocacy, some easy ways to begin are through Volunteermatch.org (a website that helps match volunteers with nonprofits) or organization-specific platforms like LiveYourDream.org.<strong>GET INVOLVED</strong>
Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.