In recent months, the destructive capacity of social media has come to public attention. Whether it concerns the United States’ President Donald Trump’s Tweets to other world leaders, alleged Russian interference in both US and Canadian elections, the sale of private information, or the propagation of fake news, social media appears to have the potential to undermine social order and democracy. However, it is important to remember that it is equally possible to use social media for the purpose of challenging oppression, gathering social and human capital, and promoting constructive messages that further social justice. The following paper addresses the question of whether and how social media can be used as a tool to bring social reforms. It emerges that the democratic, shared nature of social media allows for easier access to information and a forum for solidifying political opinion, and organizations can use these outlets as tools to raise awareness, create a base of supporters, and issue a clear call to action, such as is required for social reforms.
Beginning in 2010, with the widespread protests in North Africa and the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’, social media emerged in the public conscience as a powerful tool to organize resistance movements against oppressive regimes. Joseph (2012) examines the role of social media in progressive political movements, focusing on the Arab Spring, and provides an account of arguments both in favor of social media as a tool for positive change and against it as a tool of misinformation and oppression. Crucially, social media provides two key steps in forming a political opinion, providing both easier access to more information by an increasing number of people globally and a platform for mass conversation, which includes debate with others (Joseph 2012, p. 153-155). Social media, which is focused on content posted by users promotes a wide range of information and the ability to engage in conversation about it.
Social media is challenging traditional news media as a source of information about current affairs and world events. Ceron (2015) compares levels of political trust in relation to social media and online versions of traditional news media outlets, analyzing information shared online relative to the debate over reforming political campaign funding in Italy. According to Ceron (2015), “the unmediated nature of social media along with its bottom-up structure favor the circulation of alternative information that challenges the viewpoints of traditional media and negatively affects trust in political institutions” (p. 488). Traditional media is viewed as controlled information propagated by a small number of self-interested elites conveying messages that promote the status quo by creating public trust in institutions. Social media, as a bottom-up democratic information source can provide an alternative story to what is depicted by traditional news media, challenging the status quo and undermining trust in political structures.
However, social media are not simply platforms where individuals come together and share information. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube provide NGOs and advocacy organizations with a way to disseminate their messages and engage the public in support of their initiatives. For example, Guo and Saxton (2014) cite Invisible Children’s 2012 video campaign that aimed to raise international awareness of the abuses committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda. Within three weeks, ‘Kony 2012’ had gained so much attention that the US senate created a bipartisan resolution that declared Kony to be guilty of crimes against humanity (Guo & Saxton 2014, p. 2). In the case of Kony, the goal of the campaign was to raise awareness at the level of international powers, which, upon verification would act by condemning the human rights violations.
Discussion and Analysis I: Sharing Information vs. Promoting Action
Sometimes the spread of information does not immediately translate into action that could reform society. In the case of Kony 2012, it was fairly evident how leaders should act, once Kony’s violations were brought to light. However, some social media critics argue that the dissemination of information spreads propaganda, misinformation, or simply creates information fatigue (Joseph 2012, p. 150-152). In such cases, the public may simply choose to ignore information or become tricked into acting against the truth. ‘Slacktivism’ refers to the idea that people engage in meaningless, low-effort forms of political engagement through social media, which gives a sense of having contributed when a more meaningful engagement is needed (Joseph 2012, p. 150). If true, the idea of slacktivism would offer a strong argument against social media as tools for progressive social change.
While the criticism of slacktivism may hold some truth, studies have shown that ‘low-threshold’ participation in social media (such as sharing information, ‘liking’, or retweeting, rather than actually generating content and engaging others) actually increases the likelihood that individuals will engage in higher threshold political activities. A representative group of Italians who used Twitter to discuss the 2013 election in Italy were surveyed to gain information on subsequent political activity. It was revealed that low-effort engagement on Twitter, increases the likelihood that people will undertake “more demanding activities such as e-mailing politicians, campaigning for them on social media, and attending offline political events after receiving an online invitation” (Vaccari, Valeriani, Barberá, Bonneau, Jost, Nagler, & Tucker 2015, p. 222). Nonetheless, Greeson, An, Xue, Thompson, and Guo (2018) conducted a study of how social work academics use Twitter. The authors found that these academics utilized the social media platform primarily as a mechanism for spreading information about social issues but that they need to do more in order to activate changes and reforms (Greeson et al 2018, p. 15-16).
Analysis and Discussion II: How Social Media are Tools of Reform
So far, it has become evident that social media can be used to spread information and that, sometimes, this is enough to stimulate action. Furthermore, low-effort engagement does lead to more meaningful involvement, but that the sharing of information alone is not necessarily effective. It remains to discuss how social media operates as a tool for reform bridging the gap between information and action. As Greeson et al (2018) point out, social work academics should consider using social media as a teaching tool as doing so would create conversations and community, galvanizing followers around social justice issues (p. 15-16). Such conversations create the second necessary step, discussed earlier, in the formation of political opinions (Joseph 2012, p. 155). Vaccari et al (2015) explain that online discussions can both help individuals formulate their political opinions, allowing them to understand and assimilate the information that they receive through social media and provide a sense of meaningful participation in political discussions (p. 232). In other words, the conversational aspect of engagement enables people to process information into a conviction and it gives them confidence in their ability to participate in political affairs.
The conversational level of engagement is of a higher threshold of effort than simply receiving or passing along information. However, what is needed for truly effective engagement is a call to action. Social reformers must clarify what social media users must do in order to create momentum and achieve progressive reforms. Vaccari et al (2015) hint at the need for a call to action when they emphasize the need for offering opportunities for further political engagement via social networks as the precursor for higher threshold engagement (p. 233). However, the middle level of engagement – the conversation – is key for creating a community that is receptive to direct calls for action. As Guo and Saxton (2014) point out, without followers on Twitter, advocates do not have an audience to receive information, let alone become motivated to take action towards reform (p. 8, 11). In sum, social media can be used as tools to disseminate information, gather a community of supporters who formulate their opinions and gain confidence through conversation, and are receptive to calls for action.
Conclusion and Future Directions
This paper examined how social media are effective tools for social reform if users are engaged beyond the mere recipients of information. While the democratic, shared nature of social media allows access to a wide range of information, conversation is needed to solidify political opinion and encourage participation, eventually giving supporters the confidence to follow direct calls to action and have a hand in progressive reforms. These elements are required whether a change is positive or negative in nature and future attention should be given to analyzing the dynamics of regressive movements on social media and the impact of critical thinking skills and information literacy. In order for social media to remain democratic, additional efforts are required to educate and empower individuals against the potential pitfalls of their use. (1429 words)
Ceron, A. (2015). Internet, news, and political trust: The difference between social media and online media outlets. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(5), 487-503. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12129
Greeson, J. K., An, S., Xue, J., Thompson, A. E., & Guo, C. (2018). Tweeting Social Justice: How Social Work Faculty Use Twitter. The British Journal of Social Work, 1-20. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcx146
Guo, C., & Saxton, G. D. (2014). Tweeting social change: How social media are changing nonprofit advocacy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(1), 57-79. https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764012471585
Joseph, S. (2012). Social media, political change, and human rights. BC Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 35, 145-188. Retrieved from: http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/iclr/vol35/iss1/3
Vaccari, C., Valeriani, A., Barberá, P., Bonneau, R., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. A. (2015). Political expression and action on social media: Exploring the relationship between lower-and higher-threshold political activities among Twitter users in Italy. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(2), 221-239. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12108