How Social Media Causes Activism Among College Students

Lorie Shaull photo

Inspired by this year’s Media Summit topic (Digital Advocacy) and the panelists, I decided to look into how college students use social media for activism, and how they move from social media activism to the real world. Dr. Latoya Lee, a professor at SUNY Oswego and a media summit panelist, brought up the concept of “slacktivism”, a term used for people who don’t actively participate in social movements. These are the people who you see on your timeline retweeting or liking posts that encourage activism, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. Other panelists, like Gina Iliev, brought up how people need to go beyond their screens and actually go out into the world and make a change. And I do have to admit, I participate in a fair amount of slacktivism. Because of this, I wanted to see if other college students go beyond slacktivism on social media and bring their activism to life, so I could try to do the same.

Researchers Nolan L. Cabrera, Cheryl E. Matais and Roberto Montoya from the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado have done research into slacktivism on social media. They found that slacktivism isn’t a new concept, and that it can actually lead to some change. The researchers found that actions that could be considered slacktivism actually helped bring awareness to issues. For example, they found that a Facebook campaign by the Human Rights Campaign’s Facebook that encouraged users to simply change their profile picture to add a red logo in support of gay marriage helped bring the issue into public discourse and bring further awareness. The researches found many other studies that showed that people who participated in forms of slacktivism, such as sharing videos online, were more likely to participate in activism offline as well. They came to the conclusion that the digital age we’re in can play a central role in student activism, and lead them from their screens, to the streets.

In 2015, Janel Davis from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on black college students from Atlanta who rallied together to stand against racial injustice. How did they do this? By using hashtags on social media, like #AUCShutItDown and #ATLBSU (Atlanta Black Student United), they formed a community that would stand together in the battle against racial injustice. Students from different colleges all over Atlanta could connect in ways that they couldn’t before because of social media. And they got students to move past their screens and actually come out and rally for their cause. They got students to move past their slacktivism and participate. Students involved believe that social media is the new door-to-door petition. They feel that they share the same passion activists from the 1950s and ’60s, but show and participate in new ways due to the influx of social media.

Kristin LaRiviere, Jeanette Snider, Alison Stromberg and KerryAnn O’Meara researched activism and social media use at the college level in their article “Protest: Critical Lessons of Using Digital Media for Social Change”. They gave the example of Sharon Joy Showalter, a woman unhappy with the 2010 Virginia attorney general’s stance on rescinding sexual orientation from nondiscrimination clauses at Virginia Commonwealth University. Showalter created a Facebook page on March 6, 2010 called “VCU says NO to Ken Cuccinelli’s Discriminatory Letter” to express her concerns and rally those who felt the same way as she did. The researchers found that within hours of Showalter’s first post, people were already commenting on the page, and roughly 48 hours later, she was updating the page with news of forums being planned to discuss Cuccinelli’s statement. By March 10, 2010, students were holding rallies and protests against Cuccinelli. In just 4 days, Showalter was able to move students from Facebook, to rallies. The researchers attribute this rapid move from online to offline to social media. They say that in the 1960s, student activist groups had to communicate their ideals with leaflets, newspaper articles, and face to face meetings. But with the rise of the Internet and social media, what could take weeks in the ’60s now only takes a few hours. In the case of VCU and former Attorney General Cuccinelli, the instantaneous nature of social media allowed students to directly comment on Cuccinelli’s social media pages and join Facebook groups with people who felt as strongly as they did about this issue.

I think students want to be actively involved in the world around them. We can see and recognize when there is injustice in the world, and we feel compelled to do something about it.  We want to be activists and participate in rallies and protests, but we can also see the impact social media use has on causes. It allows us a space to gather and spread our message across the world. By using social media, causes can inspire people hundreds of miles from them to make a change in their own community. We use social media for so many other things in our lives; why not activism?

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