In recent years, we have seen a drastic change in the way social media is used, targeted, and consumed. Users of all ages are becoming involved in online demonstrations and petitions across the globe, elevating grassroots protests into an online format. Previously, political movements relied on tangible materials, such as posters, leaflets, and advertising to garner support – an expensive and time-consuming exercise with slow results. Now, becoming involved in political activism is free and easily accessible. 53 million people in the UK are active social media users, so one TikTok video or post on Twitter could be seen, liked and reshared by thousands – even millions – of people.
Is Social Media Good for Social Justice?
The most notable cases of using social media for good are the BLM and #MeToo movements. Following the unlawful killing of George Floyd by police, many social media users became an army rising from the ashes of a broken system – aiming their weapons at the failings in society, using black squares and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as ammunition. This resulted in much-needed exposure of the issues raised, leading many to reflect on their own shortcomings and educate themselves on the many complexities of race inequality.
The #MeToo movement called out misogyny and sexual assault, uncovering numerous cases of predatory behaviour by high-profile men such as Harvey Weinstein. The result? People felt able to share their stories of sexual harassment, to expose its insidiousness and give advice on how people can help in the fight against powerful, predacious men.
The rewards of support through social media are limitless – from putting both emotional and political pressure on governments to enact change, to providing a voice for minority or unrepresented groups who have been previously unheard.
Although cases like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are examples of how social media is an effective tool for inciting social change, what about legal change?
How is Social Media Changing the Face of Human Rights Activism?
Most recently, the ‘Put Putin on Trial’ petition – fronted by various reputable leaders such as Gordon Brown and John Major – has garnered over 1.3 million signatures and 365 thousand shares on social media. Posted on the 14th of March 2022, the petition calls for a Nuremberg-style trial for Putin and his associates following the attack on Ukraine by Russia.
Due to the power of social media and online activism, almost 2 million people are engaging in international law – an inherently complex set of rules and principles. The petition is a crucial example of how the relationship barrier between the law and the public is breaking down, arguably revealing that access to justice can begin with social media. Previously, it would be necessary to be in a particular profession or surround oneself with specific people to be exposed to this kind of political and legal activism, now anyone can have access to the basics of the law and be involved in it changing.
Another example of how social media is a catalyst for change is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s repatriation from Iran to the UK. The campaign, fronted by Amnesty UK and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, implored people to share her story and contact their local MPs.
Simon Marshall, founder of digital marketing agency TBD Marketing offers insight on this and states, “campaigners know [the power of social media] and are getting increasingly sophisticated in their use to bring about change”. Over 160,000 members of the public signed the e-petition, putting emotional pressure on the government to respond, leading to her eventual release. This is a prime example of how the use of social media in these campaigns promotes inclusivity, as it has no distinct hierarchy, and anyone can get involved in important legislation.
Although utilising the digital landscape of social media has many benefits, we must acknowledge its shortcomings. While the use of social networks provides a platform for needed political and legal movements, it also offers a platform for bigotry and extremism. It could be argued, without social media, these extremist ideologies would be nothing but a small, rogue subsection of society. Last year, Jake Davison fatally shot five people after joining an incel forum on reddit – inciting hatred and violence towards women. This is an example of how social media provides a voice for far-right extremists. Simon Marshall accepts this and says, “social media can be a pretty dark place” and “has been weaponised for political gain as well as to organise uprisings and movements”.
Additionally, social media neglects to provide tangible, or perhaps instant change and promotes virtue signalling rather than activism. Simply sharing social/political action on social media does not motivate change, moreover, sharing misinformation on these issues can have the opposite effect. Social media is often saturated with incorrect information, so to be a useful participant in reform requires you to carryout research outside of twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Furthermore, only sharing social activism to present yourself as having good character, dilutes the meaning of the movements.
The power of social media is clear. Today, political movements are not as effective without backing by these platforms. They give the public accessibility to complex law and politics and provide them with a chance to get involved in important, global change. Social media could be the new form of grassroots protest – every voice being an important component in the movement, no matter how small the following. It is important to remember its drawbacks, to be wary of extremist views and armchair politics.
If you would like to sign the ‘Put Putin on Trial’ petition, click the link below: https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/prosecute_putin_loc/