Social Media as a Tool in Social Change
Updated: Jun 30
A social movement needs three components to occur: social, institutional, and economic contexts. One place you can find all these components together is on the internet and especially on social media.
Mobilising a nation
Businesses and governments often watch the trends occurring online and keep an eye on world trends, while the general public uses social media to discuss and collaborate with different ideas. The most fascinating ability of this new tool is that social media enables ordinary citizens to connect and organise themselves with little to no costs, and with the world to bear witness. Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and various online blogs have arguably given a voice to individuals that otherwise would not be heard. All public resources from newspapers to radio and ultimately the internet have all manipulated the abilities of the average person to be heard by the many. William A. Gamson a Behavioural Scientist, and Gadi Wolfsfeld a professor of political science and communication both described “the three major purposes of the media in social movements as mobilization, validation, and scope enlargement”. Therefore by being covered by the media is important to validate the message as relevant, and it will “lead to a scope enlargement by the public sphere that might bring in new recruits to the cause” this, in turn, will help mobilise the movements with new recruits taking the actions further.
The social media theorist Clay Shirky has written extensively on the power of social media as a new active tool for collective action. He argues that “Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination”, which means that over the years, the world communication system has become much more complex and dense in information, with people accessing it more easily, being able to engage in the likes of protests and collective thinking. This has made loosely coordinated social movements to become organised in their actions. Before social media, any organisation would have been using methods from press releases, public meetings, university rallies. As well as text and leafleting to spread their events and movements. This at most would reach a couple of million people if done very successfully. With the use of the internet and social media, “the networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions” and the way in which people have adopted such networking has meant the attention for each call to action has increased greatly.
Social media also has the capability to let the mobilisation become the action. With businesses and governments tracking social networking sites and their popular opinions, any movement that gains a large enough traction may become a change then and there if seen by the right people.
The scholar Evgeny Morozov has recently iterated the risks of ‘slacktivism’, or activism for slackers: “an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in "slacktivist" campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group” He states “Slacktivism" is the ideal type of activism for a lazy or safe generation with no risk of arrest, torture of brutality and ultimately any change either. Although there is a rise in the number of people for each movement, the quality of actions committed by these people has lowered. It has also led to more politics within certain movements, with more people finding out about the different issues. More people then create their own groups to tackle it with several different groups aiming for the same goal. Rather than working together, they often become competitive for support and ultimately focus on beating each other instead of concentrating on the cause. This, of course, can occur outside of social media, but the access social media has given for groups to dismantle or “troll” the others has increased.
Social media and Documentary Successes
Documentaries gain traction through social media and the act of Slacktivism through clicking, sharing and distributing the documentary and its content. There will be people who will see the documentary and do more than just forwarding the content online. These people, perhaps will lead more coordinated protests, which, in turn, could create more traction online and finally, more social change.
This circular use of tools has been seen before, the documentary Blackfish was the first documentary in which these environmental movements were shown. There had been protests alongside most of the usual tools used to try and influence the opinions of society on cetacean captivity. Blackfish was comprised of videos already available on the internet but its status as a large film made the issue newsworthy and created a talking point virally and not just for those in the environmental community. Its controversial style of filmmaking and use of social media engagement from its filmmaking team meant it gained a large following online, followed by a nomination for an Oscar. Thus, creating lots of new groups and actions globally, which later became known as the “Blackfish effect”.
The more people heard about the issue, the more it was related back to the documentary; and the more it was related back to the documentary, the more people saw the issue and the circulation begins. The “Blackfish effect” was also the name for the change that was brought about by the movement, a year after the film's release, whereby “the stock-market price of SeaWorld had already declined by sixty per cent.”. This was followed by bills to ban the breeding, import, and export of orcas for the purposes of entertainment introduced in several countries and states which garnered national media coverage. This was a series of government, social and economic changes that occurred after the documentary.
The Future of Activism on Social Media
This may be exactly why the plastic issue has suddenly, after 40 years, taking the spotlight. The aforementioned documentaries like A Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet II have created a trending, speaking platform for people to start exploring the subject and take action. This has generated a greater conversation on social media, which, in turn, creates a greater and far-reaching effect. Stated earlier, social media is being used by all social, institutional, and economic contexts, when an issue becomes viral all three will be using that issue to advertise themselves, a business’ like Iceland and Weatherspoon’s advertise their less plastic waste ban, whilst the government releases bans and bills to be seen by the social group which are sharing the issue to better their online social presence.
The public, businesses and government bodies have an online reputation that they wish to create or uphold, by including themselves within a viral political and environmental matter, they can gain “followers” and traction within their circles overall this will probably have a positive effect on the movement. On the other hand, this can often be very fake with unresearched shares, fake news, greenwashing tactics and jumping on bandwagons they know little about sometimes becoming damaging to movements like the recent #Blackouttuesday hashtag creating a huge blackout for mobilising media for the Black lives matter movement. Although the pressures of social networking sites have had a largely negative outlook, with respect for social movements, it has helped to keep the ball rolling for many causes. So keep sharing, keep watching films, keep protesting, keep signing petitions but be mindful of the minefield that is the internet and your place in continuous social growth and movements.