It’s More Than Just A ‘Like’: Social Media’s Role in Activism

A post by Jess Myers and invited guest, Dr. Chris Linder of University of Georgia

Facebook and I celebrated our 10th year anniversary this winter. I remember one of the first times I logged onto my account late in the fall semester of my senior year with my roommate hovering over me. What picture would I use for my profile? I picked a great one of me wearing my favorite sweater at my ½ birthday celebration at the Melting Pot. And that was it. There were no walls to write on, albums to upload, or even then people to “poke,” and there was certainly no invites to Candy Crush. When I think back to all that Facebook wasn’t, I can’t believe we made it past those first few log-ons.

I had no idea what Facebook would become or that “social media” would even become a medium in which to share my stories or the issues in which I was passionate. And, I certainly would have never imagined I’d be engaging in research about the ways in which social media is used as a tool for activists seeking to create change on their campus and throughout our country around the national epidemic of sexual assaults occurring on college campuses. If you would have told twenty-year-old-Jess in 2004 all that Facebook would become, she wouldn’t have laughed in your face (because she was thoughtful like that) but the smile on her face would have conveyed to you a state of disbelief.

But, oh, how often does Jess-In-2015 wish there would have been an accessible tool during her college days for her to better understand and learn about sexual assault on college campuses. Or an online space that would have offered a counter-narrative to the campus rhetoric that hid sexual assault in some deep closet. Or a “like” or “share” that would have opened her eyes to what was happening to her friend and to other students on campus wasn’t okay and it wasn’t their fault. Because, today, in 2015, we’ve all seen the power social media activism has played in helping bring sexual assault on college campuses to the forefront. It is changing lives, bringing visibility to once-invisible toxic campus cultures, and beginning to hold perpetrators and institutions accountable.

Our research team getting down to business  at our research day this past fall at Georgia Tech.

Our research team getting down to business at our research day this past fall at Georgia Tech.

Over the past year, I’ve had the extreme privilege to collaborate on a research project started by Dr. Chris Linder to explore the strategies student activists are using to push the issue of sexual assault and institutional betrayal to the forefront of our national media, within the White House, and throughout the ivory tower of higher education despite the doubters that refer to online activism as “slacktivism.” As we gear up for a second year of Critical Social Justice which asks participants to examine the margins and intersections of issues and disturb the hierarchy of value associated with different forms of activism, I wanted to invite Dr. Linder as a guest to share more about our research in the hope that UMBC activists and one-day-activists consider ways in which social media can play an integral role in critical social justice on our campus, in Baltimore, and beyond. 

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Activists have engaged in consciousness-raising about various issues of concern for decades and today’s campus sexual assault activists are no exception to that. They have an additional tool for engaging in consciousness-raising: social media. In observing online forums and talking with 23 sexual assault activists for a period of nine months, our research team of four observed the ways in social media had become a tool for current-day activism. Although many have decried social media as a form of “slacktivism” (or an easy way to get out of doing “real” activism), the participants in our study demonstrated their use of social media not the end goal but just one of the many tools they use for engaging in activism.

For example, many activists in our study described using their personal Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr accounts to express their views related to sexual violence on college campuses. Specifically, they worked to integrate their message into their regular posts, highlighting the reality that by doing this, people who may not otherwise hear about sexual assault may be exposed to it through their posts.

Activists also described the power of social media in helping them connect to other survivors and activists, creating a shift in momentum related to addressing sexual violence. By connecting with other visible, vocal activists, they felt less alone on their campuses in raising their voices and more empowered to speak out. Several participants highlighted the power of solidarity when sexual violence related hashtags trended on Twitter. For example, when Wagatwe Wanjuki’s #survivorprivilege took off on Twitter, survivors and activists alike felt as though they had a forum to express their experiences.

Closely related to the connection and solidarity activists felt from shared spaces online, some activists also identified the importance of online spaces as environments in which some power dynamics were reduced. Participants gave examples of times when they (or their peers) felt more comfortable engaging in an online space because they did not have to out themselves as gay or queer in a more public, face-to-face setting. Additionally, as racism and homophobia continue to permeate mainstream news media, activists in this study identified the importance of using social media as a forum where a variety of perspectives might be shared and validated. Nicole (pseudonym), one activist we talked to, described her experience,

“When I’m on Twitter I feel like I’m… in my own community because I follow a lot of brown, queer feminist and I’m in on these conversations …Twitter is this unique place where that can exist…We share this important space where I can breathe a sigh of relief where I can get the validation I need. Where I can have a conversation with just us or us and whoever wants to join in and there’s no hierarchy.”

Finally, despite the cynicism and rhetoric that online activism is not “real” activism, participants in this study identified the role of social media in calling people to action. Activists use social media to call people to show up at events, protests, rallies, and awareness-raising events and to sign petitions, provide feedback, and increase accountability of campus administrators. Indeed, the major shift in action related to addressing sexual assault on college campuses may be credited to a long history of activism on college campuses and in communities at large. Today’s activism builds on the work of our predecessors and engages a wide variety of tools we have available via technology and social media.

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To learn more about this research project (because there is so much more!), stop by the Women’s Center Occupies Main Street CSJ event on Commons Main Street on Wednesday, February 18th from 11am-2pm.

You are also invited to create and contribute a quilt square to the Monument Project an activist project happening right here in Baltimore. Quilt making workshops will be offered every half hour during the Women’s Center Occupies Main Street event.

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