By Leah Duncan
Associate Editor, Vol. 24
Since its creation, social media has evolved well beyond its initial purpose of social connection. Today, social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter–to name a few–are now being used to promote brands, market products, and foster social connections. Beyond these uses, social media has become a tool to promote social justice and civil rights activism. For example, “hashtagging” on social media has become a popular way to spread awareness. #BlackLivesMatter #SocialJustice #WhyIMarch are but a few hashtags that people have used in developing issue awareness and promoting reform. Even further, social media has been used to facilitate protests and other forms of civic engagement. While social media can be a productive tool for change, it can also be a restricting force. In some ways, it can lead to the tokenization of social justice causes and can hamper further action beyond the internet. With this in mind, it is important that social media activism remain connected to the on the ground causes and be viewed not as an end-goal but as a means to an end.
Social media has played and continues to play an important role in helping “users bring greater attention to issues through their collective voice.” Through the use of hashtags, tweets, and other types of social media posts, users are able to both “display solidarity with” and “criticize” different social movements. Moreover, through event and group pages or accounts, social media has played a significant role as a springboard for organizing and planning collective action on the ground. One major example of the power of social media in the context of social justice movements is the 2016 Women’s March on Washington. This movement started with Teresa Shook’s Facebook event invite to forty of her friends, and quickly blossomed into a march of hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets of D.C., along with many other groups who led their own marches in their own cities. The hashtag “#WhyIMarch” was used in conjunction with the marches to not only facilitate further awareness for those unable to attend but also allowed users to find and join marches in their area. In these ways, social media was used as a productive tool of organizing and promoting awareness of a movement intended to further women’s rights.
Despite the positive ways in which social media plays a major role in social justice movements, social media can sometimes lose its connection to the real-world movements and collective action that it is intended to support. For example, hashtags have often been used to immortalize and bring awareness to victims of police brutality. On the surface, this is a powerful way to remember those who have been victimized by police officers and bring awareness to police brutality. However, sometimes these hashtags can end up tokenizing the victim and the broader social justice movement. This appears to happen most when a user’s social media activism is characterized by more emotive information rather than a balance of emotive and instructive information. To illustrate this point, using hashtags for victims of police brutality and posting information about the victims and their place in the never-ending cycle of state-sponsored violence can often lead to a hyper-focus on the problem and the need for change without accompanying attention to the “hows”, “whys”, and lessons for the future. Once this becomes the practice and norm, the movement becomes cultural capital that can be used to create the appearance of social awareness rather than actually effecting social change.
Therefore, it is important for social media activists to balance activism online with the on the ground causes it supports. This means that social media users supporting social justice causes should aim to be involved in other tangible efforts of organizing around social justice movements. For example, promoting awareness of police brutality could be accompanied by protesting or involvement with legal reforms. Additionally, those who use social media as a tool for their own activism should consider their messaging. It is important for the messages promoted on social media to include information about the how and why behind the issue that is being targeted. This would prevent reinforcing the trauma and harm of the problem and promote awareness without tokenizing the lived experiences of those impacted. As social media becomes more and more ingrained in activist efforts, we should continue to think critically about its uses and limitations.
 Matt Lavietes, How Social Media Is Shaping Civil Rights Movements, Resource Magazine (June 14, 2017), http://resourcemagonline.com/2017/06/how-social-media-is-shaping-civil-rights-movements/79054/.
 Monica Anderson & Paul Hitlin, Social Media Conversations About Race, Pew Research Center Aug. 15, 2016), http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/08/15/social-media-conversations-about-race/.
 Lavietes, supra note 1.
 See e.g., #FreddieGray #SandraBland #SayHerName #MichaelBrown
 Steven Mazie, Three Big Problems with Facebook Activism, Big Think (July 23, 2014), https://bigthink.com/praxis/facebook-is-fraying-not-saving-the-world.