How Effective is Digital Activism?

by Christ-Shamma Matalbert, resident editor & columnist

Social media is one of the most complex yet interesting and essential pieces of this era’s media and communication. Applications on smartphones, laptops, tablets, computers, and social media allow us to create web-based platforms where users build online relationships, exchange data, and consume content. Social media has come a long way over the last twenty years, and it now plays a significant role in our lives. These platforms are led by huge corporations that influence global trends and politics. The art of storytelling enables us to share our struggles freely, and that is why we must continue to protect our ability to view and share content online.  

Using the media to change public opinion is not a new phenomena. Take, for example, the story of Isaac Woodard, a Black World War II veteran known as a victim of racist violence that resulted in his blindness in 1946 before his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. His case only became a national outcry after it was covered by a major national newspaper. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked to publicize Woodard’s plight and hold the South Carolina police department accountable for their egregious misconduct. People outside of South Carolina only knew because it was documented and spread worldwide. The coverage highlighted the mistreatment that the Black community received in this country regardless of their ranks and occupation. 

Seventy-five years later many groups still use this strategy of drawing attention to change public opinion, but the tools at our disposal are very different. From the Obama 2012 campaign to smaller grassroots efforts, organizers across the spectrum have become familiar with a suite of specific technical tactics: from website search engine optimization to email fundraising using A/B testing of subject lines to buying Google AdWords and promoting posts on Twitter and Facebook. Many of these organizations capitalize on the ability to get immediate, data-driven feedback while also acknowledging that little gets done online without the community’s consent. 

COVID-19 expanded the use of digital activism. During the summer of 2020, people from around the world took to social media to express how COVID-19 was impacting them and to voice the inequality they were experiencing during the pandemic. Many advocacy groups and representatives shed light on health and income disparities and limited access to government assistance. These demands became mainstream, which eventually resulted in Congress drafting the stimulus package signed into law by former President Trump. 

From a global perspective, digital activism, also known as #hashtag activism, has brought tremendous coverage to inequalities and the dehumanization of groups internationally. Human rights violations are often uncovered by traditional media due to censorship and the lack of access to technology and the internet. Social justice advocates are often barred from speaking out against their political leaders. The algorithm of social media platforms in these countries is often set not to generate coverage so that leaders do not have to answer for their actions. But I am pleased that younger generations leverage social media as a tool to combat inhumane behaviors from the criminal justice system and those in leadership. Historically, the criminal justice system in the United States has perpetrated discriminatory practices hidden from the public. Those practices may not have decreased with social media pressure, but in some cases social media has shed a light and brought justice to those impacted, which can be very rewarding.

I will highlight two of the latest troubling human rights violations that have been exposed by social media, both in my home country of Haiti and in Nigeria. Recent controversial events in Haiti sparked the #FreeHaiti movement, bringing awareness worldwide. Haiti has long been impacted by U.S. imperialism and the colonization of French settlements. Before elections, the narrative of politicians is often elegant and resembles the people’s best interest. However, when it’s time to negotiate and bring resources to those suffering, the rich and the powerful dilute those opportunities. Jovenel Moise, Haiti’s current president, was elected in  November of 2016, and his win wasn’t a victory solely based on democracy. The Obama administration worked tirelessly to secure his election in return for control for 20 billion dollars in gold, silver, and other precious metals that Haiti possesses. Nevertheless, Moise is just the latest long line of other Western powers working to disrupt the lives of the working people. 

Both Haiti and Nigeria are no strangers to inhumane practices, sex trafficking, and police brutality. Recently, Haitians grew tired of the  disrespect and the lack of accountability amongst their leaders and took it to social media to share their experiences. They shared their scarcity of food, healthcare, education, and much more. They also voiced their concerns about the  rampant rate of human trafficking cases in Haiti. Similar to the recent horrific incident the Haitian community has been facing, Nigerians also sparked a movement by sharing their struggles online. In October of 2020, a youth-led movement sparked an outrage nationwide encompassing a range of inequality issues due to corruption and a fundamental distrust of politicians. Shaken by the protest’s extent, Nigeria’s leaders have guaranteed significant responses that incorporate investigations into police exemption. The primary step to ensuring a safer community is to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS, a famously corrupt unit that is precisely the type of criminal syndicate it was created to eradicate. 

One of the enormous benefits of using digital tools for positive change is the ability to  connect with a large community and, if applicable, globalize a campaign’s goals. One of the other key attributes of digital activism is that it is, for the large part, a non-violent form of protest. The interconnected nature of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter lend themselves easily to information sharing, meaning an activist can post a slogan or picture with like-minded online communities and distribute info through their networks in a much less time and energy consuming way. Digital activism often generates the most considerable success when it’s used as a complementary tool to offline activities or is used as the introductory method to encourage people to engage in offline activities.

References:

Butler, K. (2021, March 25). Seeing Isaac Woodard. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/blinding-isaac-woodard-seeing/

Casimir, J. (2021, February 23). A Pearl cast Before SWINE: How US imperialism and  JOVENEL Moïse have STRANGLED HAITI. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.wearyourvoicemag.com/a-pearl-cast-before-swine-how-us-imperialism-and-jovenel-moise-have-strangled-haiti/?fbclid=IwAR2jPY0RK0l8RgxKqALRgzjqHlt5GWBZeul23stRT3qLFs4rFk8ZyDlpW-Q

Gladstone, R., & Specia, M. (2020, October 21). Nigeria’s police Brutality crisis: What’s  happening now. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/article/sars nigeria-police.html 

Featured image: https://unsplash.com/photos/EQSPI11rf68

The Public Purpose

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