What role does social media play in effective activism? Northeast Indiana residents weigh in

From links to online petitions, collections of resources, photos and videos of protests, and black squares, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has taken over the social media world.

This raises the question: What role does social media play in effective activism and global movements?

If you ask Dr. Assem Nasr, Associate Professor of Communication at Purdue University Fort Wayne, one reason for the fast spread of movements on social media is its broad accessibility.

Social media has fewer barriers to entry compared to traditional media, which “requires some form of privilege” to get involved, Nasr points out. For instance, many jobs in journalism require specialized academic training as well as strong networks to gain employment at news establishments.

Other barriers to spreading messages of activism in traditional media may include advertisers. Content that conflicts with corporate sponsors’ interests runs the risk of losing profits, Nasr says.

On the other hand, social media puts power into the hands of the people, to some extent.

“Individuals get to express and share a firsthand account of what they’re experiencing,” Nasr explains.

So how is the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum on social media now, of all times?

As a community activist for the movement in Northeast Indiana, Shanel Turner believes that the public outcry we’ve seen the past few weeks has been spurred on, in part, by how close in time the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd occurred.

She believes videos circulated on social media have played a powerful role in the public’s reaction to these injustices, as well. Grainy footage of Arbery’s murder surfaced, as well as the infamous video of George Floyd.

“It’s just different when you see it with your own eyes,” Turner says.

Shanel Turner

While the spread of messages and ideas on social media may help movements, like Black Lives Matter, achieve greater reach and highly emotional responses, there are some downsides to social media activism, too. Particularly, the threat of spreading false information.

“It’s great that we have citizens who are presenting certain incidents,” Nasr explains. “The flip side is that with no vetting of social media reports, it has become increasingly challenging to discern facts from biased accounts of events as we have seen in the past decade.”

Viral movements about serious subjects can also encourage companies, organizations, and individuals to make quick statements of support for movements without ensuring that they will follow through on their words.

This brings up another challenge to the effectiveness of social media movements: They can become trends the masses latch onto for likes, re-Tweets, social clout, and then quickly forget.

In a blog on Medium, writer Holiday Phillips describes this type of pseudo-support for movements on social media as “performative allyship,” particularly in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It excuses privileged people from making the personal sacrifices necessary to touch the depth of the systemic issues it claims to address,” she writes. “If you hashtagged #sayhisname, you’ve done your bit, right? You’ve publicly declared you stand against racism and therefore can check that off your to-do list. Wrong.”

Input Fort Wayne was among the many companies and organizations to post a black square on Instagram for #blackouttuesday.

Despite the inevitable performative allyship post here and there, Turner believes the upsides to the masses sharing posts on social media outweigh the downsides.

“Regardless, they’re spreading the message of Black Lives Matter,” she says.

Along with social media, Turner says political involvement is another key way activists can show their support for a cause.

For instance, in early June, Reps. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, which, if passed, would help ensure that police officers who participate in misconduct are held accountable for their actions. Activists can urge their elected officials to support this act, Turner says, and perhaps more fundamentally, they can vote more inclusivity into political offices in the first place.

“Consider all of the people in the local government and federally,” Turner says. “What if they were all people of color and women and people of different sexual orientations?... We have to be the ones who vote them in.”

Then there’s the activism of economics. Turner says supporting local Black-owned businesses is critical to advancing equity. A great resource to do this in Fort Wayne is the Facebook group “SHOP Fort Wayne and Surrounding Black Owned Businesses.”

This brings to mind another benefit of social media movements: They can translate into action through the power of interest-based Facebook groups and instantaneous online networking.

After all, this Facebook group devoted to Black-owned businesses was created by Alisha Rauch of Fort Wayne, who works two jobs and has four children. But by simply using social media, Rauch was able to raise awareness for her cause, and single-handedly organize Fort Wayne’s first George Floyd protest on May 29 during a pandemic—perhaps the largest protest Fort Wayne has seen in recent years.

“I just utilized all the different groups and the people I knew,” Rauch says. “I was just like: Share, share, share.”

When it comes to activism, it’s important to have “action behind words,” says Dr. Paul Porter, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Saint Francis.

He suggests peacefully protesting, having personal conversations with others, and redirecting your spending as ways to put the “act” into activism beyond social media.

Of all the tools in an activist's toolbox, Porter suggests utilizing the power of listening.

“If I could ask everyone in the world to do one thing, it would be to just stop and listen to each other,” he says.

Can social media do that?
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