Young People Need to Transform Performative Activism on Social Media into Real Action Offline
Molly Greeves on why online platforms should be the beginning, not the end, for those wanting to get involved in the political and social issues of our time.
Undoubtedly, social media has changed the face of activism.
From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo, the internet has birthed movements, given a platform to a diverse range of voices and provided a worldwide 24-hour news cycle. Raised on a steady diet of Twitter and Tumblr, my generation are unapologetically political online – but in the real world, are our words being transformed into actions?
I was 12 or 13 when I was lured in by social media. While my parents taught me good values, they were never exactly political. After I turned 18 in 2017, the general election was both mine and my mum’s first-time voting. I wasn’t quite a blank slate – I was more of a sponge, thirstily absorbing people’s experiences and perspectives that I’d never thought of. Issues like same-sex marriage had likely never crossed my mind and I had probably never imagined what it would be like to be a person of colour.
There must be better things a group of intelligent young people can do than argue over whether it’s okay to say the word “bitch”.
Reading about women’s issues, limited as the feminism on the internet was at that time, I was partially liberated from the idea that I had to be a certain type of young woman. Though staring at a screen for seven hours a day was probably not the healthiest thing I could have done, this at least steered me away from the world of fashion magazines and Instagram that would have damaged my teenage self-esteem even more.
What I was seeing, before I knew it, was the beginning of social media activism, a phenomenon that would creep from a secluded corner of Tumblr and work its way onto the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds of every young person.
While there’s a lot to be said for the internet spreading misinformation and giving a platform to extremist groups, I’m not sorry that the internet raised a generation of passionate, left-wing individuals. But, with where the world is right now, internet activism online is nowhere near enough.
Until 2016, I hadn’t realised the online incubator I was living in. The world I knew cared about minorities and women, and the idea of an American President who bragged about sexual assault or a national decision based on “getting our country back” from immigrants seemed impossible to me. It’s not as if no one cared about what was happening – Brexit and Trump have dominated huge amounts of conversation online ever since. How much of our energy was spent fighting about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton?
An obvious reason that online activism has become such a phenomenon is that it’s all that many people under 18 feel they can do. They can’t vote, they can’t travel far to attend protests, most of them have no money to donate to worthy causes. But, we would be blind to think that that’s the only issue.
A lot of online activism has veered from the initial motivation of caring about others and become about petty fighting about language, “cancelling” celebrities and creating a rigid mold of how everyone should behave. This brand of liberalism encourages an all-or-nothing attitude where people’s intentions mean nothing. While we should think about the way our language effects people, there must be better things a group of intelligent young people can do than argue over whether it’s okay to say the word “bitch”.
My generation are unapologetically political online – but in the real world, are our words being transformed into actions?
The atmosphere in these circles is often weirdly vindictive and competitive, more focused on who is the most “woke” and not on helping people. This was one thing when we were 14, but even the youngest millennials are adults now, and people on the right don’t seem nearly as divided.
Online activism, when combined with real-life campaigning, can be so valuable for learning about the experiences of others and putting spotlight on important issues — the Parkland students in the US are a perfect example of this. But, activism that begins and ends with retweets is a poor substitute, and we could all be doing so much more.