What is Social Media Activism and does it work?

I was unable to attend class this week due to parent-teacher-student interviews followed by hosting a grad parent meeting. When I first read the blog post prompt, What Kind of (Digital) Citizen? post, and In Online Spaces Silence Speaks As Loudly As Words post, I felt very out of my comfort zone. I spoke to a coworker and friends about their thoughts on social media activism and we all had varying levels of comfort with this topic. Luckily I gained some knowledge and clarity when I watched the recording of the class. There was great discussion around the topic and I learned a lot. When discussing social media activism, one must first look at citizenship.

What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne describes three kinds of citizens; the personally responsible citizen, the participatory citizen, and the justice oriented citizen.
The personally responsible citizen acts responsibly in their community such as recycling, donating blood, and staying out of debt. By developing personally responsible citizens it is also developing character, honesty, integrity, and hard work (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004)
The participatory citizen actively participates in civic affairs and the social life of the community at the local, provincial, and national level. This type of citizenship emphasizes engaging in collective, community-based efforts and focuses on planning and participating in organized efforts to care for those in need (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004).
The justice oriented citizens analyze and understand the interplay of social, economic, and political forces. This citizen advocates and calls attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice, focusing on responding to social problems. As opposed to emphasizing charity and volunteerism the focus is on social movements and how to effect systemic change (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004).

What is Social Media Activism? 
According to Wikipedia, “Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society” (2019). Social activism is a broad range of activities which are beneficial to society or particular interest groups, often operated in groups to voice, educate and agitate for change, often focused on global issues. Social media activism is essentially using the platform of an online forum to lead or support a cause, it is activism behind a screen. Some examples of Social Media Activism include the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge, and The No Makeup Selfie.

In a world of constant likes, comments, and retweets, is it possible to create real change behind the click of a mouse or tap of a phone screen? Often the concept of social media activism can be alluring to a personally responsible or participatory citizen who aligns with a movement or cause. These individuals contribute to the activism through retweeting, using a hashtag, sharing a post, or using a particular filter on social media. Unfortunately, more often then not this type of social media behaviour does little more than to potentially increase awareness of a particular cause with ones online social circle, a concept called slacktivism. Sophie Egar does a good job of explaining this concept in her TEDx talk, Slacktivism: Social Media’s Effect on Activism.

Can online social activism be meaningful and worthwhile? 
Yes, I do think that online social activism can be meaningful and worthwhile to create awareness and education, but not necessarily in creating actual change. As outlined in the article, Social Media Activism is No Joke, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter often ask users to engage with different causes through liking and sharing posts, commenting, or uploading pictures/videos using particular hashtags. Social media activism has been a powerful tool in giving a voice to people across the world, especially in regards to marginalized groups. There is a significant difference between social media activism and traditional activism – the action.

Social media activism can increase awareness and act as a stepping-stone towards further engagement for a cause… Despite popular belief, there is a certain amount of effort and passion that is required in order for a social media campaign to garner significant attention and inspire change.

-Nicole Langfield

Is it possible to have productive conversations about social justice online? 
After reading Katia Hildebrandt’s post, In Online Spaces Silence Speaks as Loudly as Words, I felt conflicted about whether or not it is possible to have productive conversations about social justice online. I actually agree with Dean Shareski’s comments that people use digital spaces in different ways and that with all of the travesties in the world people may prioritize and advocate for those which they see as most important. We have all seen (or perhaps been a part of?) a comment war. These are not productive and do not overly do much in terms of creating change or educating, if anything I feel that they only make things worse.

The key to having productive conversations is RELATIONSHIPS. Posting social media activism posts online can potentially polarize people, which is not helping the cause. By creating relationships and having face-to-face conversations where tone and body language can be read, real education and change may occur.

What is our responsibility as educators to model active citizenship online?
As Joel Westheimer outlined, we need to teach students to question, expose students to multiple perspectives, and focus on the local. We can model this ourselves in our daily lives as well. As Daniel outlined in his post, an educator should foster discussions and lead students to make strong arguments based on good information. We can do this by promoting good social media practices and teaching strong media literacy skills. As Kyla pointed out in her post, we can provide examples to our students such as Greta Thunberg and Alexa Chukwumah. We must also teach about the negative side of social media activism; that some people’s online behaviours can make you lose faith in humanity with the lack of empathy, respect, and decency towards others. This is something that we as adults are usually aware of when we post something online – perhaps it determines which platform we use (ie only posting to Facebook because only your friends/family will see it as opposed to posting on Twitter where you may be subject to the entire world seeing it) and is something that we must discuss with our students. As much as we often assume that our students are full digital citizens and understand the internet-world, the reality is that anything they post online can stay online forever and they may not yet understand the full consequences of those actions (there were many examples discussed in class – such as Alec’s example of his daughter’s assignment to post a video on YouTube). As Loreli pointed out, we have a huge responsibility and fantastic opportunity to model online citizenship to our students.  We must conduct ourselves in a way that we would encourage our students to conduct themselves – appropriately, responsibly, and respectfully.

I would love to know your thoughts, do you think social media activism works? What do you think the responsibility of educators is when it comes to social media activism and modeling active citizenship online?


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