How effective is social media activism?
As Shonda Rhimes wrapped up her insightful Dartmouth commencement speech back in 2014, she slipped in a little zinger admonishing social media activism — “A hashtag is not helping.”
“Hashtags are very pretty on Twitter,” she said. “But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show.”
Rhimes went on to encourage her young, Ivy League audience to instead go out and do something. But is Shonda right?
April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, said she has seen the power of social media and the influence that “hashtag activism” can have. She created #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of racial diversity in the 2016 Oscar nominations, sparking a national sensation. Mainstream media picked up the hashtag, and some celebrities announced they would boycott the Oscars in protest. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences eventually said it would make significant changes to its voting requirements and governing structure to work towards increasing the diversity of its membership.
“I think we can credit the conversations stemming from the hashtag and the issues behind it to making system change for the first time in the 80 year history of the Academy,” Reign said.
She said that young activists often use social media as a way to communicate, organize and raise awareness, citing the Black Lives Matter movement’s active use of hashtags.
“We’re connected more by the internet than by a personal relationship or a geography,” she said. “Those who think hashtags don’t work or that young millennials are apathetic really haven’t spend a lot of time being a part of that, because it does exist and it is successful.”
Kevin Bui ’17 said social media works as a forum to share articles and contribute to a greater social conversation.
“I want to put a certain message out there through my social media and state what I believe about certain issues,” Bui said. “The majority of people won’t care, but what it can do is help challenge the people who do care to think about things in a new way or different way.”
Bui added that many young people are unaware of current social and political issues, which is something social media can help solve.
“I do think in general the current generation is more resistant to change and activism because the structural inequality we see today isn’t as blatant,” Bui said. “A lot of people think we have already achieved equality, which I don’t think is true.”
Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin said that historically, college students are generally not socially and politically active because they have other more immediate priorities.
“Most students at most times are apathetic in that whatever they think or think they think, they have other priorities besides stepping up and doing political work,” he said. “With the exception of episodic excitements, only a small percentage of students participate in any kind of political activity.”
Robert Wright ’18, a Dartmouth organizer for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, noted that many students are not as politically active because they are not immediately affected by policy changes.
“A lot of young people are already jaded and feel like no matter what they do nothing big is going to change,” he said.
Gitlin said he believes social media does not make a difference in levels of student activism, as many high points in student activism, such as the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960s, occurred before the advent of social media and the internet.
“It could even be argued that social media makes it easier to pull people out to a single action,” he said. “It also inflates the feeling that the movement is already on top of its environment, that it’s got momentum.”
Gitlin added that popular social media-driven movements, such as President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign or the Occupy Wall Street movement, tend to be short-term moments that can distract from enduring efforts.
“Social media are like wisps of oxygen — they get people excited but then they wear out,” he said.
However, Alcides Velasquez, communications professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, wrote in an email that his research shows social media does have a mobilizing effect among young adults, though the degree varies depending on the type of social media activity.
He said social media can make college students feel like they have a greater ability to effect change in the real world.
“Political uses of social media among college students increases how capable young people feel about achieving their own political objectives,” he said.
Velasquez said movements generated on social media do not often result in concrete, institutional change, though some do turn into offline movements. Perceptions of efficacy, social resources and the level of cohesion of the group all play a role into how successful a movement becomes, he said.
Avi Sholkoff, a first year student at the University of Michigan student, wrote a Huffington Post article advocating for hashtag activism in the midst of the 2014 uproar over events in Ferguson, Missouri. In an interview, he said social media can amplify awareness of issues, which sometimes translates to more legitimate action. He cited the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a social media campaign that raised a significant amount of money for a cause, moving beyond the confines of the internet.
“Something I’ve learned in years with technology is that technology is a tool and not a toy,” Sholkoff said. “Social media can be fun, but it also is a tool to educate and advocate.”
Wright, who started the “Dartmouth Students and Staff for Bernie” Facebook group, said social media was an effective way to reach out to large groups of people, though it is more of a “means to an end.” The goal is to use social media to help recruit people to campaign door-to-door, phone bank and actually vote, he said.
“The only way to make a democracy work is to get off social media and do things in the real world,” he said.