The importance of social media in instigating social change

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Wilderness on why social media is the right platform for effective online activism. / Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr

Social media platforms have long been a place for like-minded people to congregate in online tribes and communities to discuss everything from their favourite TV shows, to alien conspiracy theories. These platforms give users the opportunity to share and discuss their views on an open forum. The spectrum of content shared on social media that has broadened over time has given rise to a new opportunity to share news of social injustices and call agreeing users to unite in the face of inequality.

The no-filter nature of social media, where users can upload content as and when, or even live stream it as it is happening, means that the possibility of seeing something shocking or disturbing is only ever a few tweets away. But it is this very quality of social media platforms like Twitter that can fill people with the disgust-driven passion to make positive changes in the world. The exposure of wrongdoings to the world can be captured on a mobile phone and uploaded straight to social for the world to see means holding people accountable for their wrong doings – fundamentally, they can no longer hide.

Will Smith recently commented: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed”. It was an observation of the use of social media to circulate acts of discrimination to the masses, in the hope of some sort of justice through crowd support. After all, there’s strength in numbers.

Following the death of George Floyd – which was seen around the world after an onlooker captured it on her phone – social media exploded with rage over police brutality and systematic racism in societies worldwide. First, images of support, calling for justice floated around; users quietly mourned the loss of his life. Quickly the noise got louder and louder, the rage and passion and desire for change became infectious across platforms. Creatives combined their skills with activism and instagram was full of art in support of Black Lives Matter, calling for justice for those impacted by police brutality. Carousels began appearing, shared to instagram stories, educating audiences on systematic racism, white privilege and showing users what they could do to help the cause. Threads of petitions filled Twitter timelines. Details of protests began circulating; one in every city.

Social media has quickly replaced all other media outlets in being the quickest and easiest way to consume up-to-date information on current events. When it comes to activism, it is instrumental in circulating information to all those who might want it - getting details of a protest, for example, in front of millions of eyes in seconds just by using the right keywords and hashtags.

What followed was Black Out Tuesday, which acted as a visual mark of solidarity to the cause. Then, weeks of protests followed in all 50 states of America and across cities in 17 countries worldwide. While Twitter was a constant stream of phone recorded videos from around the world, instagram was brimming with art, education resources, black voices being elevated and lots of people finally listening and learning.

Despite what some may have predicted, the social driven mobilisation of protesters has garnered some steps in notable positive change. Numerous closed cases have been reopened. The four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have been fired and charged. ‘Breonna’s Law’ has been passed in Louisville, regulating ‘no knock warrants’. The NYPD has committed to cutting their budget by $1 billion dollars and investing it into the community. A long list of statues of racist figures have been removed from public spaces, following a video of Bristol protestors tearing down a statue of Edward Colston. Bristol“s council has also committed to further erasing the dark history from the city, retracting the name of Colston Tower.

There is so much more to be done, but it is undeniable that the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement on this occasion would not have gained so much support, awareness and such a following had it not been for the use of social media. These platforms which we so willingly consume content from for hours each day are an instrumental tool in distributing information and motivating change. The power of a group of people sharing the same beliefs is one thing, but the power of millions of users worldwide standing in solidarity with one another through shared passion is another level of potential for change altogether.

Katherine Crean, junior designer at Wilderness Agency.

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