Is it possible to change the world from behind a screen? Vv Magazine’s Isabel Chalmers, Danielle Jobb and Jessica Vomiero explore the long-term results of social media movements.
It was a lazy Monday morning in Sydney, Australia, just a few weeks before Christmas, when the news broke of an armed standoff between police and a Muslim gunman at a Lindt chocolate café. After 16 tense hours of waiting, two hostages were killed. Fearing that Muslims on transit would be targeted by Islamophobia in light of the attack, Twitter user @SirTessa (3,563 followers) punched out a tweet. “Maybe start a hashtag? What’s in #illridewithyou?” Despite @SirTessa’s low profile, #illridewithyou went global. In less than an hour, a movement was born.
Nowadays, social movements are often sparked with a hashtag. Thanks to the dominance of digital communication, social movements have forged a solid relationship with social media. We live in a world where people spend more time scrolling down their Twitter feed than reading a newspaper. Activists now have a platform with potentially massive reach; social media bypasses national, political and social barriers. The immediacy of social media allows movements to blow up within minutes. But this rapid fame often burns bright and fast, and creating a long-term influence is increasingly rare.
Take Kony 2012, a campaign known more for its viral YouTube video rather than its cause. Jason Russell spent several years developing Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to helping the child soldier crisis in Uganda. In 2012, Russell and his team launched the #stopkony campaign with a 30-minute Hollywood-quality video, starring Ugandan militant Joseph Kony as the villain responsible for abducting thousands of children and turning them into child soldiers. The video scored more than 100 million views, becoming one of the most viral campaigns of all time. But, aside from Russell’s very public (and very naked) meltdown in 2012, you probably haven’t heard about it since. Russell worked tirelessly for over a decade to bring attention to his cause, everyone cared for a minute, and then attention evaporated.
The problem is that social media often recognizes trends prematurely, giving them attention before they’ve fully developed into well-rounded movements. When an issue blows up before proponents build a sustainable voice, the conversation often pushes forward without direction. At this stage, scattered opinions lacking facts can cheapen the message. This results in a weak argument and ultimately detracts from the credibility of the movement, which may eventually send a good cause back into cultural oblivion.
While social media can bring quick awareness to an issue, there’s no promise that this large audience is willing to engage. Hashtags bring awareness, but they don’t cause change; 140 characters can only go so far. Protests that once required the physical presence of protestors now gather on the world wide web. We have birthed a generation of “slacktivists,” a generation of lazy protesters. By retweeting a story, joining a hashtag or liking a status, we can feel a sense of charity without leaving home. But how much of a difference does a trending hashtag really make?
In terms of the Occupy Wall Street and The Arab Spring protests, the answer is a lot. Occupy Wall Street began in 2011 as a grassroots protest of the massive wage gap between rich one-percenters and everyone else. While the wage gap is still alive and all too well, the movement stirred up enough passion to create months-long sit-ins across the world, including one in Toronto’s St. James Park. The Arab Spring protests similarly used social media to spread information and gather people in real-life protest. The successful movement, which began in 2010 and resulted in the Tunisian Revolution, caused a ripple effect of political overthrows and protests throughout the region.
The 60’s were a decade of relentless protest. John and Yoko’s version of the hashtag were the twelve billboards they rented across the U.S., which read “WAR IS OVER! If you want it.” Protests took place on a massive scale, and people were willing to make serious sacrifices for the cause. In 1963, a Buddhist monk lit himself on fire at a busy intersection to protest the Catholic occupation of Vietnam. In 1968, radical feminists staged a protest during the Miss America pageant to fight the nation’s ludicrous beauty standards. Historically, protest was an active event.
Today, there is no denying that social media has influenced social justice. However, we’ve taken a thing of passion and turned it into something passive, which, though it offers ample exposure, offers little prospect of long-term change. Social media has the potential to influence goodwill on a global scale. But the question remains: Can we cause real-world change from behind a computer screen? Let’s hashtag it to find out.
What are some of the social movements you’ve been apart of via social media? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.