Social Media vs. Social Activism

It’s 11:30 p.m. You’re in bed early with the good intention of getting a full night’s sleep, but you can’t help checking all your social media accounts first. You scroll, scroll, scroll, drop your phone on your face, scroll, scroll – until you see an interesting article your best friend’s roommate shared about watershed pollution. You read the whole (well, almost) article, feel inspired, click “share,” then roll over and fall asleep. You’ll check how many “likes” your shared post got in the morning – but will you do anything else?

For many of us, this is the extent of our action when it comes to various causes, issues, and awareness – posts and articles we stumble into on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Our “inspiration to action” quickly withers following a simple retweet. Sometimes we go as far as to include a lengthy monologue regarding our opinion on the matter – but is this to raise awareness or feed our own ego? Regardless of the motivation, this is still a passive response. There’s a term for this – armchair activism. “A person who acts like an activist, but from a metaphorical armchair – i.e. from a mostly or totally inactive, theoretical position,” according to the omniscient Urban Dictionary. This means you have ideas and opinions but don’t exert the physical energy of getting involved.

Illustrations by Emily Rice, @ricelikethefood.

Illustrations by Emily Rice, @ricelikethefood.

#KONY2012, anyone? You, or at least one of your friends, definitely had at least one social media post following Invisible Children's film, Kony 2012, which urged Uganda to rid itself of war criminal and militia leader, Joseph Kony. It’s estimated that thousands of tweets and posts, including one of the Kony hashtags, were posted by people with no real understanding of the issue. They only jumped on the bandwagon because it was “trending,” and it gave them a feeling of contribution.

So what does this mean in the grand scheme? It’s hard to say. The social media outcry – the sheer number of hashtags – directly spurred a response by the U.S. Senate and contributed to the African Union sending in troops. Which means, all those posts – educated or not – did make a difference. So does it matter that the majority of social media users involved forgot all about the movement within a couple weeks? Is it okay to enable and encourage “slacktivist” behavior if it means more prominence in the public eye? In many ways, this becomes an argument of the benefits and downfalls of both individualist and group mentalities.

Reeve Jacobus, a recent college graduate, does humanitarian work in Lira, Uganda via the Peace Corps. He works with African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), a Nobel Peace Prize finalist, supporting victims of war (the same people victimized by Kony). Jacobus works on the organization’s social media presence, thus putting him in a place of conflict with the masses of social media slacktivists.

“They can get the misguided satisfaction of contributing without actually doing so. Is that the type of generation that we can trust to confront racial, gender, and economic inequality around the world, now and in the future?”

Jacobus goes on to make the point that while “calling a few clicks or a couple hundred words 'activism' is a disservice to activists, past and present, who have given so much to movements around the world,” social media can be a productive tool for social progress if society can “learn to wield its power correctly.”

This is something Andrea Vancil, a current student at Birmingham-Southern College, certainly has learned to do. Vancil recently led a very successful social media campaign in protest of BSC’s 2016 key note speaker, Dinesh D’Souza. Vancil feels D’Souza doesn’t represent her university’s student body and the “normally high standards of academic integrity.”

“Social media is what inspired me to protest in the first place,” Vancil points out, having seen another student’s post about the speaker. “We know [social media] to be the easiest method that exists right now to instantly communicate with the largest platform of people possible.”

Vancil and her protest co-leader formed a petition on and used Facebook to spread it and gain online signatures and supporters – both inside and outside of the BSC community. She saw passionate responses, far from the typical armchair activist attitudes. “This was an issue that directly affected many of the people on my friends list. It was immediate to my community. So we saw a lot of response and interaction.”

Ultimately, the usefulness of social media vs. the presence of armchair activism seems fairly case-specific. Social media certainly brings attention to causes that may have otherwise remained in obscurity, but it also promotes minimal action and education on issues.

So what should you do the next time an activist issue rolls into your timeline? According to Jacobus, you should ask yourself, “What is true engagement? Everyone has issues that they are passionate about. The trick is turning that passion into engaging with the movement in a meaningful way. Asking yourself this consistently will help to make sure you’re contributing how you want.”

The specific views expressed in this article are those of the individuals and not reflective of said organizations as a whole.