Social Media Activism And The Problem With Legitimacy
As much as social media activism has evolved, it cannot escape its dependency on oppressive norms, ripping the legitimacy of movements from their creators.
There have been few other movements to spark as much controversy, confusion, and gut-wrenching passion as social media activism.
If we back up, it all started with the immersion of technology and the prominence of Internet and tech culture. The 21st century has brought us so many different innovations. With this, it has shifted every corner of our culture, even ones that we believed to be untouchable. Activism is no different.
One of the best things that has evolved from this shift has been the amount of community that has been able to flourish. For many people, social media was just another outlet to reach an audience. But for marginalized groups – specifically people and women of color – it has become essential to the advancement of our independence from oppression, for raising our voices to injustice. Social media activism invigorated the social justice that was bubbling below the surface.
The secret to the effectiveness of social media activism does not come from the catchy slogans or popular hashtags, but the ability of this medium to be used consecutively with other outlets. Without social media activism, these marginalized groups seeking change are left stagnant, and separated. There is indeed strength in numbers, and this is the thread that connects activists to a global power cord, tapping into their full potential.
One demonstration of how social media activism can impact and connect communities is #BlackComicsMonth, began as a response to the lack of Black superheroes available for nerd consumers. Founded by Vixen of VixenVarsity.com, the hashtag not only brought awareness of available Black superhero media to the market, but also built community with creators involved in the same cause. The movement has gained momentum, stretching beyond the initial February launch, and Vixen is now able to create a centralized house for Black superhero visibility, and continues to build the brand through networking opportunities with major comic book companies, and comic conventions, with the hope of continued expansion.
There is a saying in social justice education that you need to meet people where they are. For me, that means it’s impossible to talk about social justice movements, social media activism, and identity without stating one crucial fact: these are all linked ingredients that contribute to the creation of injustice. This makes social media activism mandatory for marginalized groups to be heard. But even this comes with complications.
One of the most prominent (and effective) uses of social media activism has been #BlackLivesMatter. This campaign to bring awareness to the terrifyingly-growing number of Black individuals who have been victimized by racist police brutality and unjust legislation has gained international notice, and continues to be an effective outlet for information and outreach. However, this movement also highlights an all-to-common trend when it comes to tech and cultural movements: it is nearly impossible for marginalized voices, especially those of Black and other women of color – to be heard, credited, and respected.
One of the creators of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Alicia Garza, wrote “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” published by The Feminist Wire in October. In this piece, she brought back the necessary recognition of the work that she and her co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi have done, and also dived into the power of community and collaboration. She writes:
“We were humbled when cultural workers, artists, designers and techies offered their labor and love to expand #BlackLivesMatter beyond a social media hashtag. Opal, Patrisse, and I created the infrastructure for this movement project—moving the hashtag from social media to the streets.”
She also writes about what she calls “the theft of Black queer women’s work”:
“When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice. It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions. Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy.”
As Alicia mentions, article after article centered on the #BlackLivesMatter movement contributed to the erasure of these voices. The erasure of the three Black queer women who headed this movement speaks to a much larger problem of systematic erasure and oppression on which most movements, including social justice ones, depend and thrive. As much as social media activism has evolved to allow for these voices to rise above and be heard despite these hurdles, it cannot escape its dependency on oppressive norms, ripping the legitimacy of these movements from their creators. There’s a fantasy that one day technology could transcend this dependency, but in reality, there’s been cause to question if this kind of cultural theft and appropriation has actually increased online.
Interestingly enough, social media activism is headed largely by the same marginalized groups that are discredited and victimized again and again by the system. For this reason, and many others, certain individuals have pushed for the dismissal of social media activism, citing its “ineffectiveness” as a social justice tool.
As both a Black woman and an activist, I do retain that some of the arguments made here are valid. Do we continue to utilize tools that have been shaped to keep us out of the house, or is it worth reinventing the uses for these tools? With social media activism, it becomes more than a hobby – for many of us, it is the missing link for connecting our causes to larger strategies. However, by questioning the “legitimacy” of social media activism, especially when it has such close ties to amplifying marginalized voices, we are inherently questioning the right for these voices to be amplified in the first place. We are subconsciously placing that privilege onto tools for change, contributing to the messy and complicated cycle of oppression all over again. Instead, we can shift this narrative – marginalized activists, or otherwise – by opening these spaces to rightfully include the work that these activists have done, especially when it comes to the reworking of these tools.
As social media continues to act as a millennial meeting ground for support and encouragement to flourish, it also amplifies those marginalized groups for harassment, gaslighting, and plagiarism. Predators that wish these groups harm can now find us with a quick hashtag search. It now becomes mandatory that a marginalized person on the Internet find the courage to continue their work online, while also taking steps to protect themselves from possible threats.
Despite the increase in harm that can come from becoming public via technology, it is no longer an option for marginalized voices to be silent with this incredible tool at their fingertips. Social media activism is important in all facets of contemporary social movements, molding technology and adapting to the next frontier of humanities and communication.
Only two examples from countless movements, both #BlackComicsMonth and #BlackLivesMatter were able to utilize the power of community through hashtags, effective social media strategy, and the transformative ability to appeal to multiple audiences on different platforms. By using these skills, these movements and their creators are able to see success in shifting activism for the tech age.