Tweet For Change?: Millennials and Social Media Activism


As technology continues to evolve across a dense jungle of apps and websites, the gaps within on and offline social networks are smaller than ever. With innovation just around every corner, more people are looking for the next best thing when it comes to human interaction. Political turmoil has inspired many to retreat to a minimalist approach towards activism and community involvement, characterized by the label “slacktivism”. The issue of slacktivism is a recent phenomenon, and casts a spotlight on the rising efforts to participate in genuine, positive social behavior with one another outside of mobile screens.

From Instagram to gluten-free cafes, slacktivism, or social media activism, is another item on the list of crazy millennial things. As the most tech-savvy group, Generation Y as well as those in later generations, are given the most blame. Characterized by tones of anger and a flood of Tweets accented with the conspicuous hashtag, slacktivism is often imagined as a superficial strain of more traditional calls to social justice.

At the center of the critique is the promotion of trending issues through social media campaigns, through the use of hashtags and shared pages. Surfacing as another by-product of the liberal mindset and technology, it’s not surprising that slacktivism is met with much scrutiny. This idea caters to millennial stereotype as lazy, self-indulgent brats with no work ethic and a lack of discipline. The popularity of mobile apps continues to invite online communities, leaving the traditional activists of previous generations the misconception that the youth just simply live in their isolated worlds.

The skeptics shouldn’t be so quick to judge though. The decision to tap into these crucial bases makes sense; much of the appeal of social media driven campaigns lies in their popularity and accessibility. Anyone who has access to the Internet can enter the conversation. Each voice is absorbed, and it requires no formal qualifications to participate. There are so many people on Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter — if you want to spread word about a cause, you go where the people are. These platforms are already starting to emerge and be accepted as new platforms of journalism — to an extent. Even notable figures are heavily active on social media. For example, Donald Trump (whose smartphone won’t likely be pried from his fingers anytime soon) sends frequent shockwaves throughout Twitter. Communities such as Black Twitter are evidence of the value incurred on the sites, which cast light on rising social issues. Many online activists post detailed first-hand accounts of violence or discrimination and circulate within their social networks before it reaches major news outlets.

Though these examples aren’t without their controversies, it would be short-sighted to completely dismiss social media activism as superficial. Individuals don’t need to have specialized information or previously engaged in political activities like meetings or protests. Slacktivism often manifests as a safe space, since the majority of people can engage in it, regardless of race and social class. Thanks to intersected networks and the trending hashtag feature, news circulates more quickly than ever. Small bursts of information (such as Twitter’s 140 character limit) do risk watering down the issues, but this is made up for in the sheer number of networks.

Continuously free-flowing information through open channels ensures that the conversation is constantly stirred. Though the degree of commitment is low, online activism functions as an effective introductory experience which encourages long-term commitment. While there’s a definite gray area regarding its effectiveness, there’s no denying that it has yielded pretty convincing results.

The recent triumph of the #NoDAPL movement Standing Rock controversy stands as concrete testimony to shatter the misconception of slacktivism. The victory surpassed the expectations of both supporters and naysayers, showing that this sort of mobilization can and does work. Outside of the #NoDAPL movement, previous campaigns also proved success in ensuring the marginalized have a means to make their voices heard. #OscarsSoWhite was a trending hashtag that surfaced as a backlash to the announcement of 2016 Academy Award nominees, the majority of which were white actors. Some of the more prominent movements that continue to thrive today, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #NotMyPresident, gained significant traction on social media.

Social media’s power to refine focus on a certain industry opens up a space that works to demand more accountability. Almost everyone, even major companies, seem to be on social media, so there’s an urgency and obligation to expect swift responses from those being scrutinized.

Considering the viral nature of slacktivism, it might seem that social media activism is hinged on whatever trends are dominating the political climate. What millennials are really striving for is efficiency. Brought up in a time of unprecedented achievements in technology, those in Generation Y are unique in that they’re accustomed to a fast paced world. It’s only natural that they expect activism to function the same way. They are not looking for ways unplug and cut off the real world. On the contrary: they’re simply looking to achieve activism and hurry up the process in ways red tape can’t.

In an age of apps that condition people to have 3-second attention spans, slacktivism seems to have remedied the challenge of attracting and holding individuals’ fleeting attention. So for now, online activism shouldn’t be completely discredited because it does present itself as a means of legitimate political action, albeit an effectiveness which comes in waves.

To scoff at this effort based on the association of tech and youth is an unreasonable attack on the younger generation. The notion of a detached and apathetic community of young people is far from the truth based on many movements organized on social media. A Facebook post might be the thing that gets a person interested in attending a protest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People might not be doing much at first, but at least they’re doing something.

Slacktivism itself offers a pathway from passive to active roles, including collaborations with local and federal government, non-profits, and private organizations. The transformative power and latent effectiveness is through its inclusivity of diverse voices and backgrounds, one that’s dependent on small communities doing behind-the-scenes work.
Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, slacktivism should be seen as a temporary phase. Millennials are the first to harness a new form of activism in a new language, one that the older crowd just aren’t fluent in. As its potential continues to be understood and navigated, slacktivism highlights the need to get increasingly more creative with its approaches to generating an interest in social responsibility.


This article originally appeared in Below Celsius.


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