Social media has given activists a platform to join together around various issues, such as race, sexual assault and discrimination, allowing people to take part in causes like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. This is because social media platforms allow people to connect and gather without the need for formal organization., according to California State University, Northridge communication studies professor Lin Sun.
Sun said difficult conversations about topics like discrimination and assault might be easier to start online because victims, advocates and minorities are able to band together to support each other’s experiences.
“There’s a lot of vulnerability, a lot of risks, one has to take when opening up and sharing those experiences,” Sun said. “With #MeToo and similar hashtags, a lot of participants may feel a little bit more empowered, because they might have a sense that they are joining a larger group of people who share similar feelings and experiences. It’s not one person having to come out in front of everyone alone.”
But, Sun said, there are drawbacks to using social media to spark societal change. She warned against treating social media platforms as “utopian virtual spaces.”
People who use social media for social justice, or even just for venting their frustrations, run the risk of harassment or being identified in real life, Sun pointed out. Alt-right and white nationalists in general have been having a strong presence online, targeting and harassing people, and spreading their own messages.
Sun noted that a topic trending on social media one day might be replaced by something else the next.
“There are a million things happening online that are dividing or distracting people’s attention,” she said.
“Social media is useful, but it cannot be the only effort people take to have these conversations.”
While social media should be seen as an extension of in-person spaces, online activism cannot fully solve social injustice alone — efforts need to be made in real life as well as online for a cause to take effect, she said.
“Social media has great potential, but it does not guarantee changes for the better,” Sun said. “We need to make an effort to utilize social media for these causes, but cannot solely expect social media to be the silver bullet for a revolution.”