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From the streets to the screen

Social media activism art by Sophie Froese.

The evolution of activism, protest culture in American society

While scrolling through Instagram feeds, tapping through Snapchat stories or fumbling through Facebook profiles, one can’t help but stumble upon dozens of posts heralding whatever is the most recent crisis. 

Although activism has existed in America for as long as politics itself, this computerized form of activism or awareness spreading via social media, known as “cyberactivism,” is unique to the past decade. As American society has transitioned toward online media, activism has followed suit, changing how Americans engage in and educate themselves on issues.

“If you don’t have something on social media in this world, then it won’t be seen as legitimate.”

Shruti Gautam, junior

American history shaped itself through a tumultuous saga of advocacy. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights movement, wherever there was dissatisfaction there was a campaign to right it. Dr. William Horner, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri — Columbia, described activism as an essential aspect of the American identity.

“Some really important social changes have taken place as the result of activism, such as women’s suffrage, voting rights for African Americans and other civil rights, ” Dr. Horner said. “It has also been responsible for some things that the country decided it didn’t like so much, such as Prohibition, which was followed by an amendment to repeal Prohibition.”

These movements tend to reflect the ideologies of their time. The nonconformity of the American identity lent itself to the harshness of the Revolutionary War, as seen in the popularity of tar and feathering and guerrilla warfare among patriots according to, an educational website that describes and analyzes historic events. 

Many other major movements, such as Shay’s Rebellion and the New York City Draft Riots, involved heavy bloodshed as a result of militia violence. Dr. Horner, however, delineated that a movement’s violence reflects the degree of grievance felt by activists.

 “So, protests that occurred before the Revolution turned violent because there were certain colonists who felt they were being oppressed by a violent colonial power in the British,” Dr. Horner said.

In the 20th century, oppression of racial minorities and women prompted activism in the form of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Suffrage, both of which have created lasting influence on American culture. 

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Despite great strides American society and government have taken to become more inclusive and just, like comprehensive suffrage and marriage equality, there are still sources of injustice and thus movements to correct them. 

“I would say that while there are certainly differences you can point to, a lot of activism is generally the same,” Dr. Horner said. “It is all about getting people’s attention, getting them to participate and getting the media to pay attention. It isn’t the basic ways of protesting that change but, rather, the technology.”

Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe today’s social media are important in creating successful movements for social change, according to a 2016 report by The Center for Media and Social Impact, a research center based at American University’s School of Communication. The report continues that in the past year, 53 percent of Americans took part in a social media campaign, or effort to make change or raise awareness administered through social media, such as joining an interest group, changing one’s profile picture or sharing a political post. 

This, along with the rise of advocating hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, facilitated a discussion about the power and efficiency of social media as a means of social engagement.

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Senior Afnan Hussain subscribes to cyberactivism and uses social media to spread awareness for current issues such as human rights, sexual harassment and environmental protection.

“I personally do [cyberactivism] because I feel like a lot of people use social media, and I know people will see it and even if they don’t share it, they can still be like ‘Oh’,” Hussain said. “For example, I posted something on my Instagram story about the Amazon [rainforest fire] and trying to get people to raise awareness. . . And at least if you can bring awareness to one person, then that’s all that matters.”

Black and Hispanic social media users view cyberactivism as especially important, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center telephone survey. The study found roughly 50 percent of black or Hispanic social media users agreed that internet platforms were at least somewhat personally important to them as a venue for expressing their political views, sharing their voice or for getting involved with issues that are important to them, while only around 30 percent of white users agreed with the same statement. Analysts of the study credit some of this racial disparity to the exclusion of racial minority interests and perspectives in lobbying and other more expensive means of vocalization and change-making.

Despite the significant support, the public as a whole shares mixed views on how social media affects the quality of political dialogue and activism. Critics of cyberactivism claim it draws away from important issues, with 77 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement “social media distracts from issues that are really important,” according to The Center for Media and Social Impact’s 2016 report. Another 71 percent agree with the assertion that “social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t.” 

Senior Greta McNamee, however, disagrees. She believes a post is more than nothing.

“I don’t think inactive activism pulls attention away from actual change because it can be used as a platform to broadcast the change happening,” McNamee said. “For some people, leading or taking part in profound change is just not feasible for certain issues, but with this inactive activism they can continue to raise awareness and allow people who are better equipped to respond.”

Did You Know. . . ?
As of May 2018, #BlackLivesMatter had been used approximately 30 million times on Twitter.
[Source: Pew Research Center]
Some of the most successful modern activist movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives haven’t solely used social media or in-person protests. Rather, their effectiveness stems from a mixture of both. While planning the 2019 Menstrual Health Day March, junior Shruti Gautam found using social media was essential in making the event more organized and accessible.

“I got the word out, was able to remind people and had an approachable interface where people were able to easily access information,” Gautam said. “If you don’t have something on social media in this world, then it won’t be seen as legitimate.”

One in five Americans uses social media as a primary source of news and information, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. Despite the varying degrees of approval, social media has become a fixture of American society and discourse. 

“Social media is certainly a powerful force, and activism has adapted to it, just as it once adapted to the printing press, loudspeakers, copy machines, etc. There is some debate about whether social media activism is real activism, but I think it is because people pay attention to social media,” Dr. Horner said. “The mainstream media pay attention to it, and it can be a catalyst for other, more traditional kinds of activism. I am not sure, in the current day and age, that [one] could separate the social media from a successful protest. I don’t think it is enough by itself, but it is a crucial ingredient of modern social activism.”

How do you use social media to promote change? Let us know in the comments below.

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