On Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant, a black 22-year-old, was shot in the back by a transit police officer outside of a BART train station in California. In 2015, #blacklivesmatter, a hashtag that surfaced in response to police brutality and racial inequality, was tweeted nine million times. What happened in the years between these two events has been one of the largest social revolutions of the 21st century.
The #blacklivesmatter movement is not the first to use Twitter and Facebook to gain support; the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 and the Kony 2012 movement used similar tactics, relying on social media platforms to gain awareness.
Dr. Pamela Lightsey, a BU professor in the School of Theology, attended the Ferguson protests last year and has been actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The ability to utilize technology in ways that the camera could not do or a news broadcast could not do in the ’60s has shaped this movement,” she said. “The ability to communicate using social media against fliers made on copy machines and to announce meetings on Twitter accounts for much of its success.”
Whether it is simply tweeting out a hashtag or retweeting your friend’s screenshot of a news report, posting a video of a rally on Facebook or watching the #blacklivesmatter Snapchat story, it has become so easy to get involved.
It’s almost too easy.
This is where the seemingly perfect social media platform becomes an issue: the lack of effort required to be considered “aware” and “involved” has changed the definition of what we consider to be a “social activist”—and it’s not necessarily an improvement.
Jacob Groshek, a Boston University professor and Dean of Emerging Media Studies in COM, has spent years analyzing social and political activist efforts and their tactics, recently focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If you just send out one tweet and it has something to do with Black Lives Matter, well that really hasn’t activated you or changed the nature of the social movement or youth involvement in it,” said Groshek. “But if it becomes something that develops that participation to the extent that maybe you become involved in offline activities then that obviously would not have been possible without social media.”
The term “slacktivism” has been used to describe this new wave of primarily social media activism of the 21st century. The Oxford Dictionary defines “slacktivism” as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement.”
The line between the positive effect of social media and the negative effect of this “slacktivist” wave of activism is nearly impossible to draw. The bottom line is that much like every other technological advancement, social media facilitates something that was not possible before; it doesn’t create new activism, but it expands on previous tactics. That’s how 21st century activism should be approached.
Protesters shouldn’t stop organizing rallies, sit-ins and boycotts just because they can post a video on YouTube, get a million views and call it a day. Social activism is a continuum and we should approach it like one. So, to anyone tweeting and sharing Facebook posts: keep doing it, but signing up for a rally or two also wouldn’t hurt.