Social Activism in a Social Media World

Social Activism in a Social Media World

Philippa Dods
7 August 2019

It may seem the most passive form of activism, but netizens often turn to social media to encourage social change, because it spreads at the flash of light across the globe. The Guardian reports that social media activism or “slacktivism” is a weak form of effecting change. But in some cases, it’s all consumers can do, and most of the time it’s incredibly effective at raising awareness, if nothing else.

Here, we explore when social media is effective in creating societal change, when it isn’t, and what brands need to know when jumping on board social issues.

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Social Media Uprising

Especially if you can’t physically be there, whether barred by distance of stronger forces. Just think of the Arab Spring uprising.

While SourceWatch confirms that social media itself didn’t cause the uprisings, demonstrations and revolutions back in 2011, Facebook pages like “We are All Khalid Said,” Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and blogs certainly helped organise over 100,000 people to protest on Egypt’s Police Day – all the more impressive when you consider the Facebook page had originally aimed for half that number to protest.

SourceWatch adds that “Facebook appears to have played an important role in mobilizing the younger, more urban and wired classes, giving them the comfort of an online community and making it safer to take collective action.”

Lending more truth to the cause, just a few weeks ago, social media users made their profile pictures a specific shade of #BlueforSudan to tie in with the #TurnTheWorldBlue hashtag.

This followed the support of Hollywood celebs like George Clooney, Rihanna, Naomi Campbell and Ariana Grande, of what NewsCorp Australia dubbed a “people-led push for democracy in Sudan”, in solidarity with and honour of those killed. It’s said to have formed part of: “the plan to coax Western governments to increase international pressure on the ruling military in Sudan.”

al jazeera - blue for sudan - social media for social activism

Hashtags: The Only Voice We Have Left?

The global online blueing movement, sparked by the death of Mohamed Hashim Mattar, started small, with Mattar’s family and friends posting his favourite colour, a particular shade of blue, on their social media profiles to honour his death – even more symbolic as NewsCorp Australia reports the Sudanese government shut down the internet as way to “conceal its massacres and crimes against civilians.”

TRTWorld confirms “This isn’t just any blue, it’s Mattar’s blue. He was in love with colours in general and this was his favourite one. Say his name. Remember him,” wrote Twitter user, Dinan al Asad.

So rather than just a random choice, followed by a click and wish for the best, Sudanese-American campaigner Remaz Mahgoub called it an “effort to raise awareness, as we the Sudanese diaspora are the only voice left.”

peace during protest - social media activism

Get Ready To Go #RedforKashmir

Now, a similar mass colour wave for support is playing out over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram alike, right here in India, this time #RedForKashmir. 

It comes after the Modhi government’s Bharatiya Janata party abolished Article 370 of the Indian constitution on 5 August 2019, which had accorded special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Effective immediately, J&K now ceases to be a state and is instead be seen as a Union Territory with legislature.

While previously the state’s local legislature, the Constituent Assembly of Jammu, was allowed to make its own laws and bans people from outside the state from buying property, obtaining state government jobs and participating in state-sponsored scholarship programmes, Sputnik International explains: “Rejecting that special status means the national government is ensuring that the national constitution will now be applied throughout the Himalayan state.”

It’s been reported that some saw the move as something to celebrate, as the undoing of a “Nehruvian blunder” and step toward integration, but intense disquiet has also been brewing about what’s really going on in Kashmir over the last week, especially in light of the scariness of a near-total mobile, media and telecommunication black-out in the region from the weekend.

And so, #RedForKashmir is gaining momentum. Why red? “Red is the colour of our blood. Red is the colour of our history. Red is all of us,” confirms News18.

social change on social media

Rise of Red Across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Globally adds that #RedForKashmir is spreading fast and trending on social media while leaders, journalists and activists have been detained and even locked in their homes, with curfew declared and no news coming in or out. In the super-connected times, it’s like taking a step back in the global time machine.

Med student and vlogger Dawood Yousuf recorded a podcast about how other “Kashmiris outside Kashmir are coping with the situation and the siege.”

Dawood Yousuf @youdawood

The rest of the world is taking note and standing strong with Kashmiris – thought they don’t know it, as even Instagram access has been limited, with Sputnik International adding that netizens are changing their profile pics to plain red after India scrapped Kashmir’s special status. This comes amid ongoing cross-border violence with Pakistan along the Line of Control.

The hashtag movement is spreading a sense of unity for some, as MangoBaaz writes that of all nations, Pakistanis are standing in solidarity with Kashmir. All the top trends in Pakistani social media at time of writing were related to the situation in Kashmir, including #StandwithKashmir, #Article370 and #KashmirParFinalFight.

Fears are further spreading globally among those who have heard what’s happening through the global digital grapevine, as concludes that visitors to the region have been sent back, based on alleged intelligence reports of terror threats to the region: “Thousands of more troops have been deployed in the already highest militarised zone of the world. We are going for #Redforkashmir to bring global attention to the region.”

Twitter user @huzedinehuzane adds the following powerful call: “#KashmirBleeds and the world is silent because it does not know. I implore my followers to join Kashmiris in changing their profile picture to red. Because they fear the power of people on social media, India silenced them with internet and communication shut downs. Be their voice.”

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What Brands Need to Know About Using Crisis Hashtags

It can be very tempting for brands to lend their voice when they see hashtags trending globally, but a word of caution before you leap into the fray – authenticity is key.

Cypha Social adds a further word of caution against jumping the hashtags bandwagon without doing your research, explaining:

“There are significantly more eyes on the social media pages of brands than on everyday individuals, and with these eyes come significantly greater expectations when it comes to appropriate posts as well as significantly more backlash should they get it wrong. Brands jumping on existing hashtags and real world events for self-promotion can often be cringe-worthy and in poor taste.”

They explain: “Most of the successful brand uses of trending hashtags are related to light-hearted topics with promotional material either taking a back seat or adding something to the conversation. A hashtag can be a powerful thing, so before jumping on a hashtag brands should consider how their participation might be received.

So in a case like this, don’t even go there. Simply change your brand’s social media profile pics to red and use the #RedforKashmir hashtag – this is not the time to try in with your latest palette of lip rouge or quirky formatting to feature your new range of red products.

Social media gives us all a way to add our voice to the growing call for global change. Use yours wisely.