With the advent of social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, the way that we receive our information has changed. At one time, longer newspaper articles and TV news stories were the primary source of breaking news. Now, it seems as though Twitter is often a faster and sometimes a reliable source of information. Not only can you see information from major news networks (with differing political biases), but also live feeds of information from civilian reporters, and all of the reactions and opinions surrounding that news. Thus, when events occur you can instantly form an opinion from primary and secondary sources in addition to feedback to those sources, all while scrolling a single, organized hashtag. I use Twitter as an example because the algorithm that it uses makes the sharing of information rapid and comprehensive, as opposed to facebook which filters out ‘offensive’ posts (source), and tumblr which frequently adopts a liberal bias and promotes misinformed posts.
Often, what we see is that Twitter hashtag movements spark outrage that lasts as long as the tag is trending, creating a brief period of social empathy. For example, the Ferguson shooting from last August, the #BringBackOurGirls movement from early summer, or the infamous Kony 2012 fiasco.
Many would argue that the brevity of these movements and their lack of real, tangible results make social media activism pointless. But I would argue that social media activism brings attention to pressing problems, and has a sort of “drop in the bucket” effect. One person alone tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming their version of the ice bucket challenge has little effect on the bottom line of the ALS Association. But when those sorts of things go viral, there’s an infinite number of possibilities, as is shown by the $114 million that said ice bucket challenge has raised.
While hashtag activism is mostly ineffectual now aside from increasing awareness, it has the potential to become a great source of social change. Recently, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was ‘indefinitely suspended’ from the team because of a scandal involving the abuse of his wife, Janay Palmer. The reason for this was (unsurprisingly) not because of the abuse itself, but because Anheuser-Busch beer company, one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, noted their disapproval of the way the NFL had handled Rice’s crime. They did not want to be associated with the NFL in its current state for fear of how it would impact their sales.
Therein lies the key. If social media activism can somehow graduate to become a method to influence consumer culture, a lot more is likely to be done. Memetic spreading of ideas or causes, a la the white house petition site, kickstarter, or the ice bucket challenge, is a great way to get the attention of people in power, whether they be government agents, corporate CEOs, or wealthy celebrities. The proles themselves may not be able to influence change, but even the most basic plebeian can influence the Man if he has friends by his side.