At the end of the summer, as students were finishing internships or returning from traveling abroad and they were hit with a deluge of ice water — the ALS ice bucket challenge. This was an Internet challenge in support of the ALS Association, which raises money for research for the debilitating motor neuron disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Participants around the world were challenged to pour buckets full of ice water on their heads and then donate to the organization, raising both awareness of and contributions to ALS research. Since the challenge was launched on July 29, the foundation has collected more than $115 million in donations, with over 28 million social media posts, comments or likes on ice bucket videos, according to BBC News Magazine. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and regular people all participated, building into a “Have you done it? Have you?” mania.

This was 21st century activism in all its Internet-driven glory. While there were many concerns raised about the challenge, the impact is undeniable, and speaks to a momentous change in the way activism functions in our highly interconnected world. This manifests itself through major campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge, and also within activist groups at the University of Michigan.

The University has always had a reputation for grassroots activism — ever since President John F. Kennedy chose to announce the plans for the Peace Corps on the steps of the Student Union in 1960, Ann Arbor has been an unofficial center for liberalism and social justice, a role that stretched through the Vietnam protests of 1969 and the anti-apartheid movement that took over campus in the late ‘80s. This culture of activism is still very much present on campus, but admittedly can look a bit different from the sign-toting hippies of yesteryear. Hashtag activism is the new norm at the University, with social media taking the forefront in student social justice movements.

A new platform

“Social media and information communication technology, that’s the infrastructure that we now have, that people have access to,” said Scott Campbell, the Pohs professor of Telecommunications and associate professor within the Communication Studies department. “That’s the platform upon which activism takes place.”

Social media’s impact can be seen in multiple student movements over the past year. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter quickly gained traction this week on social media in response to the grand jury decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, resulting in protests and vigils around the country. One such vigil occurred on campus this Tuesday at 6 p.m. Over 1,200 users said they were attending the event on Facebook, which saw a large gathering on the Diag by students and community members that featured five speakers, and then a march to the Ann Arbor City Council Building.

Another student movement occurred when The Black Student Union led the nationally-recognized campaign, Being Black at U of M, which started in fall 2013, and led to further action in January. The campaign garnered millions of impressions online and over 500,00 tweets containing the hashtag #BBUM, sharing the experiences and challenges of Black students on campus. Representatives from the BSU were featured on national news platforms like CNN and in the New York Times, and their widespread success propelled them to propose seven demands of the University, ranging from a more welcoming multicultural center to a mandated 10 percent representation of Black students on campus as a proportion of the overall student body.

Engineering senior Robert Greenfield, BSU treasurer, said that the immediate success of the campaign took the group by surprise, and demonstrated the power of social media efforts.

“BBUM was a very volatile time for the Black community,” Greenfield said. “Trayvon Martin happened that summer, there was the Theta Xi incident and a lot of incidents like that around the nation.”

The Theta Xi incident, which was an impetus for the BSU’s campaign and their seven demands, refers to a frat party invitation sent out on Facebook in Nov. 2013. The party was entitled “Hood Ratchet Thursday” and the invitation featured racially offensive and appropriating depictions of Black culture.

“We just needed to get people together, get over these grudges, maybe get 200 tweets and that will be that,” Greenfield said. “Obviously, we were kind of blindsided.”

Mere months after BBUM went viral, another protest rocked the University, as Students Allied for Freedom and Equality launched the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at the University, a campaign demanding the University divest from companies allegedly providing services to the Israeli government that support their actions in Palestine. This movement came with its own hashtag, #UMDivest, and discussion of the protest took over campus and other campuses around the country. While SAFE emphasized physical presence over online campaigning, they used social media to bypass rules in Central Student Government meetings that do not allow any speaking during official proceedings.

“Our frustrations (were) with the things that were said (during the CSG meetings), we couldn’t keep talking to the person next to us, so we went to Twitter and posted stuff like ‘This was what was just said,’ ” said LSA sophomore Mekarem Eljamal, current SAFE spokesperson and Outreach chair.

Not all social media-based moments of activism on campus have received such levels of attention as BBUM or BDS — which is not to say other groups haven’t used social media to make a positive impact. LSA senior Meera Desai, a member of the Vietnamese Student Association, recalls an event that occurred last November while University students were visiting Michigan State University for a football game, in which they were called racially-offensive terms by MSU students. In protest, the group posted a letter to their Tumblr page, addressing the prevalence of anti-Asian racism at Midwestern as well as national universities. The letter received responses of support from across the country, reaching diverse communities in ways only possible through the Internet.

“Social media has definitely helped my organization realize that it’s a message that can get to a lot of people on a national level,” Desai said. “It’s not a singular event, it’s not random encounter, it’s part of something bigger.”

Building a network

While the ubiquity of social media in our lives and in social justice is evident, the ultimate impact of the use of technology within activism is still hotly debated. However, both academics and students agree that social media has created a new space for marginalized groups, bridging gaps in unprecedented ways.

Information graduate student Jean Hardy specializes in the ways social media and new information systems impact those with oppressed identities, particularly within the LBGTQ community.

“People who may have feelings about their sexuality or their gender at a younger age now find ways to find community online, in places like Twitter or Tumblr,” Hardy said. “They kind of build a network of support that way without actually having to be physically located in an epicenter of gay or trans life, like Chicago or Seattle or San Francisco.”

Desai also believes that social media has contributed to community building, citing her own mixed ethnicity as a catalyst for finding a community with shared experiences online.

“I think social media has helped a lot,” Desai said. “It has helped people meet each other, people who are invested in the same causes and have the same identities and experiences.”

Just as websites like Twitter and Tumblr have the ability to connect those who may have been adrift before, the advent of messaging technology also allows groups to mobilize quicker than ever.

In October, more than 1,000 students, in one of the largest on-campus protests in years, rallied at the University President’s house, demanding that he fire now-former Athletic Director Dave Brandon. The protest was organized in less than two days, mobilizing participants through a widely shared Facebook event and cell phone communication. While this protest drew ire from many students — even prompting a viewpoint in The Michigan Daily questioning the turn out to protest Brandon in response to a football game rather than the Brendan Gibbons sexual assault case — it also was a compelling demonstration of our generation’s ability to use technology to organize in ways unheard of before.

“(The Dave Brandon protest) is a great example of how (students) were able to mobilize so nimbly with each other, getting the word out through text messaging and social media to raise awareness about this protest,” said Campbell, who focuses on emerging media and mobile communications. “I think that kind of thing absolutely was possible in the past, but I don’t think it would have been pulled together as quickly as it was in this particular case.”

Grounding a movement

Social media allows information about physical events to have a greater reach at a much faster pace, connecting individuals with an ease very different from the grassroots movements of decades ago. However, social media can also breed a culture of laziness in activism — wider reach sometimes means the dissolution or misrepresentation of a cause or identity. This phenomenon goes under multiple names — slacktivism, keyboard courage, click activism, armchair activism — but they all encompass the idea that it’s easy to “like” a social issue without really investing in it.

“Social media, for all causes, can bastardize the cause if there is no materialistic effort that extends outside the Internet ethos into what is reality,” Greenfield said. “For us, (the materialistic effort) was blacking out the wall in Angell Hall.”

After the BBUM hastag went viral, the Black Student Union covered a wall in Angell Hall in black paper and had students write anecdotes and phrases regarding their experiences as Black students at the University. The action did not go unnoticed on campus.

“I feel like (for) so many white students at U of M, that was their first exposure to institutional racism just being talked about in general,” Hardy said.

The success of the BBUM campaign required the BSU to step back and reevaluate its demands — with great reach comes great responsibility.

“It really forced us to do a lot of research and put in a lot of time, not only to come up with what would then be the seven demands, but to make sure that there was a communal agreement about what those things would be,” Greenfield said.

This represents the difficult conflation in activism between online success and actual change, an issue activists from all movements continually face.

Eljamal believes it was critical that the BDS movement had tangible events and presence outside of social media. While they posted photos and updates alongside hashtags on social media sites, especially during the silent CSG meetings and their sit-in, SAFE placed a strong emphasis on inciting students to actually participate in these events rather than just liking a post online.

“We know you read it — great. We know you watched it — great,” Eljamal said. “What are you going to do about it now? Go to events, make sure your thoughts and actions reflect what you are learning on social media.”

Despite these movements’ efforts to connect the intangible with the tangible, it’s still easy for people to hide behind their computer screens; given the “trendiness” of activism on college campuses, especially liberal ones like the University, there is a certain social cache in proving your social justice background online.

“It’s always been trendy to be a social justice person at college,” Desai said. “The people who do decide to join (social justice) because it is trendy, it’s problematic for them to do it for that reason alone, because they aren’t taking the steps necessary to work through their own privilege and their own identities, and starting to engage in a way that is respectful of other people’s experiences.”

This “keyboard courage” can also have a darker, more subversive side. Internet “trolls,” or people who use social media to limit or abuse communities and identities, are an unfortunate side effect of the advent of social media. These aggressors can hide behind screen names, granting them nearly untouchable privacy and power.

One on-campus example occurred during the BDS campaign. A Facebook picture of Former SAFE member Yazan Kherallah, now a University alum, featured him holding a pineapple and a knife. The photo was picked up by a Washington Free Beacon staffer who wrote a vitriolic, hyperbolic piece, attacking Kherallah as an individual and the Islamic community as a whole.

Despite the negative emotional and structural consequences these “trolls” can have, Hardy doesn’t necessarily believe that the access they or even conservative outlets have to social networks is completely negative.

“Those horrible people are going to be out there either way, and I think it’s really important that both views are presented,” Hardy said with a laugh. “Not because of freedom or whatever, but just so people can see what a fucking joke a lot of that other stuff is.”

This “other stuff” can also refer to a recent Fox news clip that came out in response to a video showing the prevalence of street harassment in New York City, which garnered over 36 million YouTube views. In the Fox news clip, commentators belittled the actions of those fighting against street harassment — one commentator even objectified the woman in the original video, saying “Damn, baby, you’re a piece of woman.” Media clips such as this are a fitting reminder for activists that the “other side” has access too; this means detractors and trolls, but also institutions of power.

“The thing that is the other side of this coin, is that technology is used to empower the establishments to, in some cases, squelch protests,” Campbell said. “Although I don’t think that’s what we are seeing here on this campus.”

Examples of this range from governmental social media shutdowns within the Arab Spring movement, to closer-to-home acts of institutional interference. Campbell recalls a recent event in which the BART, San Francisco’s subway system, shutdown cell phone service in order to curtail involvement in a possible protest.

While aggressive actions such as this have yet to be taken against protests at the University, it shows the delicate balance activists face between utilizing social media and having it be used against them.

Moreover, in the flurry of discussion surrounding technology and how it’s rapidly altering most aspects of life, it can be easy to forget that access to technology is not universal. This holds true for online activism, as often groups that are marginalized — and most in need of social advocacy — don’t have access to emerging media, like smart phones or Twitter.

“It’s hard because when you do something around technology, you make a lot of assumptions, and the first is that people are economically able to afford to use the technology that you are associating that activism with,” Greenfield said.

“The ubiquity of smart phones, especially smart phones that come free with a phone plan, is changing the game in a lot of ways,” Hardy said. “But I still think there is a digital divide, and there is a lot of work being done right now to increase literacy in under-served populations and to try to ramp up access.”

This once again reinforces for activists how imperative physical impact is in a movement — not only does it demonstrate a truly dedicated base, it allows oppressed populations to be reached out to through multiple avenues.

An evolving campus, an uncertain future

Walking across the Diag on a Tuesday in November, campus seems busy. Students scuttle to class, wrapped in parkas and over-sized scarfs. A tent to one side promotes Blood Battle and a large group of students stand over the block ‘M,’ encouraging those who pass to join the student organization optiMize. Written on one wall of the Hatcher Graduate Library is the phrase “Save the Lost 43,” a reference to the tragic abduction of 43 college students in Mexico. Spray-paint on the Diag reads “EXPEL RAPISTS” and “ADMINS DEFEND RAPISTS.”

University students are not, and probably will never be, complacent when it comes to issues of social justice. A quick survey of the physical center of our campus is evidence of that. However, as social media continues to expand and change the course of society, activism changes along with it. Despite the setbacks that come with a less physically engaged community base, both Hardy and Greenfield believe that social media is ultimately beneficial for furthering social change.

“Someone is always going to capitalize on it,” Greenfield said. “You are always going to have something that’s trendy, but I have faith that that wouldn’t overcome good intentions.”

“I feel like the amount of people being reached by social media is exponentially larger than the amount of people that you can meet door-knocking in a neighborhood about a certain issue,” Hardy said.

Ultimately, Campbell argues that the individual will always be the most critical part of successful activism.

“I think when we are trying to explain and understand activism today and how it’s changed, we need to be careful not to overlook the social component of this, because the technology by itself doesn’t do anything at all,” Campbell said.

“It’s highly dependent on individual users, and what they bring to the table in terms of their motivations and their skills and their desire to maximize the capabilities of the technology — to make them better informed citizens, to make them more effective activists, and without that, the technology on its own isn’t going to do anything.”

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