Last year’s Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS Association, ‘#blacklivesmatter’ for solidarity with those suffering in America, and ‘No Make-Up Selfies’ for Cancer Research UK. These are all examples of social media trending phenomenon which we have all either heard of or taken part in, aiming to rally for the greater good, either to raise money for, or awareness of, the causes involved. However, how much good does so-called ‘social media activism’ do? When you post a status, hashtag, tweet, or double tap is this really contributing to a worthy cause, or is this just a way of virtually supporting causes that are changing lives? The Gryphon explores the effects of online activism on societal issues.
In light of the recent refugee crisis in Europe, leaving thousands in search of asylum, the British public responded with great positivity through an online petition that can be signed online. The petition ‘Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK.’ has around half a million signatures online, which means that the issue will be brought to debate in Parliament. The Home Office have also responded to the petition with their intentions to increase efforts with the Vulnerable Persons Relocation (VPR) Scheme in Syria.
The petitions on the site mainly focus on various issues that members of the public face today, ranging from legalising cannabis to the protection of bees against pesticides, and more recently the allowance of more refugees into the UK in order to be as active as other European countries in this crisis. Anyone can set up a petition on the site; with the idea of the petitions being to bring issues to the government’s attention, calling them to act on issues that matter to the people.
Similarly, other sites such as sumofus.org and change.org also allow you to sign petitions online, which can then be published on your personal social media accounts; these websites tend to publish petitions concerning issues in a national and international scale.
The question is: to what degree does this online activism affect your behaviour in society on a daily basis? Does this merely increase awareness on issues or does it have any real effect on a social level?
An upside to the use of social media as a tool to act upon societal issues is the amount of awareness raised online leading to greater fundraising for charities and campaigns. For instance, JustGiving an online donation service for charities, last year received a twenty-five percent increase on the previous year in sponsorship and donations, due to more people accessing their site on their phones and via social media sites. This shows that people are willing to make a stand against unjust issues and take action in what small ways they can, like making a donation online, and that social media is an effective platform to share fundraising pages as it can increase awareness of charitable causes through sites like JustGiving.
In addition, earlier this year the hashtag ‘smearforsmear’ campaign for Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, called for women to take a selfie with smudged lipstick to raise awareness for women to get more regular smear tests. In this way, social media can be a medium to put difficult subjects in the public eye in order to encourage understanding about an issue that may otherwise be hard to talk about. Seeing this campaign on social media may make more women think of getting tested, as well as making the subject easier to talk about, and could in fact save lives by promoting the importance of tests in such a public manner.
Social media is so prevalent in our society it needs to be utilised so that it causes a collective awareness of issues facing us as a society: enabling people to come together for positive change. As simply liking a page or post online, and not actively doing anything for a cause, does not pave the way for effective change on serious issues. In this sense, do we become passive supporters for a cause we do not donate to or volunteer for? Furthermore, do we become desensitised to the issues we are aware of and do we become more a part of the problem once we are aware of an issue?
In terms of playing an active part in recent issues we are aware of in Leeds, Student Action for Refugees Society (STAR) provides conversation classes twice a week, to help refugees in Leeds learn English. STAR also run a Bike Project to give refugees repaired bicycles; it is a part of a national network of students to help refugees and asylum seekers. You can find out more about STAR and how to get involved on the Union website or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unfortunately, not every single injustice that happens in the world is brought to public attention by social media or otherwise; injustice happens daily, out of public view. So as well as allowing you to like, hashtag or double tap at our screens, social media may simply remind us that we are helpless. That being said, our choice to be helpful to those around us and support causes in any little way that we can makes all the difference. Social media empowers us as it is largely leaves it up to us as individuals to decide to help, and our social media accounts act as a platform for potential activism online, should we choose to use it in such a way.
Activism on social media gets a lot of attention and raises awareness for issues and charitable causes, but physical action is needed for change to materialise in society. Social media is more and more of a powerful tool in many ways, but must be utilised in a manner which can encourage positive change, by creating a sense of unity, solidarity and positive action.