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If there’s one good thing that has emerged from a year of political divisiveness, urban unrest and economic lockdowns, it’s that we’re starting to see the formation of a new generation of social media activists. Using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, they are bringing their message of hope, equality and social justice to the broader world. In many cases, they are going far beyond just using a few trendy hashtags or changing their profile photos – they are actively using social media to encourage others to take action and recruiting like-minded individuals who can join them at protests and rallies.
New Pew Research survey on social media activism
What’s perhaps particularly interesting about this new social media activism is that it is far more multicultural and diverse than any previous form of social media activism. By and large, Black and Latinx social media users are at the forefront. According to a recent June 2020 survey by Pew Research Center, Hispanic and Black social media users were far more likely to use social media to support and encourage a cause than White social media users. For example, nearly one-half (48%) of Black social media users have posted a photo on social media to show support for a cause, compared to just 33% of all White social media users. Moreover, 45% of Black social media users are likely to encourage others to take action, compared to much more modest numbers for Hispanic and White social media users.
It’s clear, then, that activism on social media varies by race and ethnicity. And that’s not all – social media activism also appears to differ by age. When Pew Research Center examined social media activism by age, they found that the 18-to-29 demographic was far more likely than any other age group to take part in social media activism. More than one-half (54%) of social media users in the 18-to-29 age group took steps to advance or support causes on social media, compared to just 36% in the 30-to-49 age group, 26% in the 50-to-64 age group, and just 20% in the 65+ age group. This makes sense, right? Teenagers and young adults are more likely to take to the streets to protest a cause than older adults, and that’s especially true in the new COVID-19 era, in which older people are more at risk than younger people and more likely to stay home.
But what is social media activism, really?
The big question, of course, is what “social media activism” actually entails. According to Pew Research Center, social media activism involves encouraging others to take action. Taking no action is now equated with support for the status quo. Thus, if you are not showing your support for #BlackLivesMatter on social media, the assumption is that you do not support the cause. Between May 26 and June 7, for example, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was shared 47.8 million times. And many social media users showed their support for the movement in other ways, such as by posting profile photos of themselves wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask, or by taking part in social media “blackout” days.
According to Pew Research, nearly one in five (18%) of social media users are now actively using hashtags in their social media posts. At first glance, that might not sound like a high percentage, but think about it for a moment: if one in every five Facebook posts you see references a certain political movement, and if one in every five Twitter posts you see also reinforces that message with a popular hashtag, then that might just be enough to change the consciousness of a nation. While #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo were the two most popular hashtags tracked by Pew, other popular hashtags include #MAGA and #LoveWins.
In 2021, we may be witnessing an inflection point with social media. Disenfranchised individuals left behind by the current political and economic establishment appear to be embracing social media as a platform where their voices can be heard and where they can confidently reach out to others sharing their beliefs, opinions, and sense of social justice. Overwhelmingly in 2020, these were younger Black social media users. And in 2019, these were women of all ages using the #MeToo hashtag. In 2021, we might see another political cause erupt into the mainstream, thereby making Facebook and Twitter the place to go to support, encourage and amplify that cause into the broader public consciousness.