On Feb. 4, 1960, four college students sat down at a lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. The four Black students, who would later be known as the “Greensboro Four,” had spent weeks carefully planning and preparing. The lunch counter’s official policy was to only serve white people, but the students remained seated until the doors closed. By the next day, more than 300 students had joined the protest, with the event gaining nationwide recognition, being dubbed the Greensboro sit-in.
In 2023, the paradigm of modern activism has shifted. A far cry from the events at Greensboro, various studies have shown social media to be the primary form of advocacy among the nation’s youth. For the average college student, a large portion of their activism comes in the form of Instagram stories and infographics. In-person engagement has been substituted for isolated advocacy, performed from behind the comfort of a screen. The satirical term of “keyboard warriors” has emerged in reference to individuals who post aggressive or controversial comments through anonymous accounts and usernames to avoid backlash or accountability. Nearly half of social media users reported having been politically active on the platforms within the past year, raising the question: Do these posts actually solve anything?
This is the driving question behind modern-day social media based activism. In what the United Nations has dubbed “slacktivism,” many modern social media users have begun to engage with issues in ways that appear more performative than passionate. Activist “efforts” on social media often consist of minimal personal effort. “Lazy liking” and reposting of content seems to have become the standard. That is precisely what occurred in June of 2020 during #BlackOutTuesday. Roughly 28 million squares flooded social media to promote awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, but these seemingly high levels of advocacy proved to be short lived. Just three months later, polls revealed that support for BLM had decreased from 67% to 55%, suggesting that many participants viewed the movement as no more than a passing trend. In this seemingly unbreakable cycle, controversial world events are met with an initial outpouring of support, hyperlinks and petitions — and then, silence.
This reality is far from uncommon. The 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign serves as yet another poignant example of this trend-based advocacy. Centered around efforts to find 200 Nigerian girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram, the campaign garnered the support of millions on social media, including celebrities. A year later, however, the girls were still missing, and the hashtag had mostly disappeared online. While the argument can be made that this instance of hashtag activism raised awareness about the issue, the lack of external commitment to the issue outside of social media resulted in a complete lack of progress.
This absence of follow through has become a growing subject of concern among the nation’s leading activists. Co-founder of Freedom March NYC, Chelsea Miller is just one of these many activists who have begun to voice their anxieties over the decreasing longevity. In an interview with NBC, she talked about the impact of social media-driven advocacy.
“At a certain point, we need to shift the conversation to talk about sustainability,” Miller said.
And indeed, it appears as though the ease of sharing information online has begun to eclipse the imperative of critical thinking and long-term engagement with these social and political issues.
The numbers back this reality. Users are statistically much more likely to mindlessly repost information on an issue, as opposed to first performing the necessary research to truly understand the nuances of what they are posting about. The Pew Research Center published a study that revealed that even though nearly half of Americans consider themselves politically active on social media, only 19% reported having actually researched further information on protests, rallies or other avenues to advocate for social progress. This gap signals a growing disconnect between the perception of political activity on social media and the actual depth of engagement. This lack of thoughtful discourse risks an oversimplification of complex issues and increased instances of surface-level engagement.
Despite record highs in advocacy on social media platforms, volunteering rates in the U.S. have declined to record lows. A report released by AmeriCorps and the U.S. Census Bureau found that a significantly smaller portion of the American population is volunteering now than it did two decades ago. According to the survey, less than one-quarter of Americans aged 16 and older volunteered for an organization or association. This circumstance has proved especially damaging to the nonprofit world, and many believe that the false sense of accomplishment generated through social media advocacy could be to blame.
As a generation, we have moved past performative measures. Social justice and social media might both have the word “social,” but only one of them brings results and empowers communities. While social media provides a platform for advocacy and awareness, it should serve as a gateway to more substantial engagement, rather than an endpoint. While online dialogue on these issues is valuable in garnering awareness, it remains ineffective unless translated into concrete actions and real-world commitment to change. Societal development is a process that takes years to bring about. It requires persistence and sustained dedication — it is something that cannot be achieved through the quick click of a button.
Tate Moyer is an Opinion Columnist from Los Angeles, California. She writes about digital culture and technology, and can be reached at email@example.com.