The Ties That Bind: Can Social Media Support Activist Campaigns?

Social media is used for a wide variety of purposes; these can include anything from maintaining friendships, sharing interesting or entertaining tidbits of information, or political campaigning.  A relatively recent phenomenon is the use of social media to raise awareness for activist causes. However, the use of social media as a means to incite activism has come under criticism lately, and been popularly labeled “slacktivism.” Wikipedia defines slackivism as “a pejorative term that describes the “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.” Slacktivist actions include signing an online petition, “liking” a cause page on Facebook, or changing a profile picture or avatar to represent a cause. While this definition describes the sentiment, it does little to distinguish the grey area of online activism; there are various degrees of supporting a cause online.

The primary distinction can be found in the intent of the cause. It is through examining the intent that one can determine if social media is an appropriate venue to incite change. One key distinction is between whether or not the intent is to inspire activism, or increase awareness. Activism involves action. Awareness however, involves bringing to light issues that others may not have known about. Social media can be an appropriate means to inform others about a particular issue or cause. Activism however, involves more of a commitment.

Malcolm Gladwell attests that “the revolution will not be tweeted” because social media is based on weak-tie relationships- that is to say, very few online “friendships” have the strength to motivate people to take real risks. Risk, as Gladwell states, is a definitive factor of activism. While it cannot be denied that, often, social media ties are weak, these weak ties do not mean that activist causes cannot be organized via social media. In a recent, local, example, a same-sex couple in Moncton New Brunswick were denied service by a flower shop who’s owner argued that she could not provide service to them based on religious convictions. A Facebook group was created to organize a peaceful demonstration at the flower shop to protest the infringement to the New Brunswick Human Rights Act. Between 60 and 90 people showed up for the demonstration. Without knowing who actually attended the demonstration, and without a network analysis of the participants, it is impossible to know how strong the ties were between those who showed up at the flower shop that day. But maybe the success of online activism is less about linking people with strong ties to each other, and more about linking people with strong ties to a cause. If activism is truly linked to risk, than, while it’s easier to take a risk if you have a “real” friend with you, you’re not going to take that risk if you and your “real” friend doesn’t agree with the reason for taking the risk.  Strong ties are imperative, yes; but that strong-tie relationship may not necessarily need to be between “friends.”