When social media rose in popularity in the early 2000s, it was difficult to imagine it would have the influence in our lives that it currently does. The connectivity, creation of personal platforms and ability of the everyday person to share information and ideas almost instantaneously has created a new level of public discourse that is historically unimaginable. With a simple Wi-Fi connection, anyone is able to publicly present their opinions, call for change or engage with national leaders and public figures. And with this new power of the people, it would be difficult to deny the effect of social media campaigns in our current social and political climate, especially those with such widespread support for #NeverAgain and #MeToo. These movements have led to pervasive demonstrations across the country, especially among young people. Started and motivated by students following the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, #NeverAgain led to national protests in American schools on March 14. #MeToo has been exposing stories of sexual harassment and assault primarily on social media since actress Alyssa Milano’s use of the hashtag in fall 2017. This brought it to the forefront of American social movements, despite its 2006 creation by activist Tarana Burke. Social media has the power to both create and revive topics of social and political importance.

The hashtag itself has become a popular symbol of support, standing before some of the most pressing issues of our time. By searching through hashtags, social media users are able to see a full thread of people discussing what they are interested in. They are able to join in by posting opinions or stories, sharing those of others or engaging in conversation with those who both agree and dissent. There is a connectivity never before available that spreads the ideas of our nation across state lines almost immediately.

And with the most recent political trouble of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, social media again has been an important way for citizens to debate, present opinions or clarify details and facts. These movements are guided even further into the limelight through the support of celebrities and users with large followings, as evident from the plethora of celebrity commentary regarding Kavanaugh. Entertainers Ellen DeGeneres, Chelsea Handler, Ava DuVernay, Amy Schumer and countless others have posted their support for Christine Blasey Ford and America’s women following this appointment, but one strong emphasis has been made among many of these statements of sympathy and the need for action: Vote.

While social media is undoubtedly a great platform to spread information and gain support for political and social issues, this does not directly equate to consistent action. Retweeting an infographic or powerfully-written thread on Twitter can make someone feel as if they are engaged in our nation’s politics, but in reality, social media is frequently used as a passive form of activism. Despite social media’s usefulness in movements, this activism — referred to as slacktivism — can oftentimes end with a simple share. Agreeing with something and posting a brief opinion about it does not always materialize into something actionable. Social media users, especially those who were raised in the age of social media and are accustomed to being bombarded with a constant stream of information, can treat movements like trends. While everyone else is posting about a topic, they feel as though they should too. Social media encompasses vast amounts of social pressure, and many users follow these trends to keep in tune with the landscape of their favorite social networking sites. It’s the basis of their newsfeed for the week surrounding the event, but when the timeline starts returning to its original mix of news and personal updates, so does their real-life concern about the issue. Slacktivism.

And this does not mean that everyone who has retweeted a political opinion should be demonized for not taking to the streets every chance they get, but even simple acts of political engagement are not being met across our country, and importantly, across our generation. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout for the nation was only 60 percent, and voter turnout was nearly 30 percentage points higher among citizens 60 and older when compared to citizens 18 to 29. Voting is the most basic performance of our civic duty, and we are not meeting the levels of turnout that a politically-engaged nation should be. This remains concerning as the 2018 midterm elections quickly approach, with the knowledge that midterms have a historically lower turnout than presidential elections.

Movements of today could not be created and mobilized in the ways that they have been without social media, and using these platforms to rally support is an invaluable strategy that will and should persist. However, it needs to be the focus of the public to make sure that this support is tangible. We need protesters. We need activists. We need voters. Activism is not a trend, it is something that needs to stay at the forefront of our minds and become a part of the constituency that we are.

Erin White can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu


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