From Stoneman Douglas to Rotten Row: How Far Does Social Media Activism Go?

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By Martyn McGrath

This article is exclusive to the online Edition 1 of VARSITY Newspaper. 


The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have created an internet sensation in the matter of a few weeks. They have been either lauded or vilified across the United States as their social media campaign for gun reform has swept the nation. Pundits, commentators and celebrities alike have hailed their efforts and praised their determination. Not everyone has been so positive – some on the far-right have branded them as ‘attention seekers’ or ‘actors’, some going so far as to suggest that they are using this situation to make themselves famous. The majority of these claims are absurd, and the students have dealt with them masterfully. It does, however, raise a potent issue.

Social media activism has become a phenomenon in the modern world, and the question must be asked: “How far does social media activism go?” Some have argued that it can only go so far; unless coupled with genuine action, it’s nothing more than angry tweets or furious Facebook posts. These are usually filled with badly-stated opinions, straw man arguments and fake news. This view has its merit; social media is a fertile ground for angry and ill-informed rants, but if used correctly it can also be an immensely powerful tool.

Image by Sipho Mpongo.

In recent years, several social media campaigns have been able to cause tangible change. One example of this is the #ThisFlag campaign; started by Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire. This campaign for non-partisan and citizen-led activism swept the country. The movement gained such momentum that it was featured on several major international news broadcasts and saw Pastor Evan rise to a position of prominence. It shone a renewed light on the need to reclaim Zimbabwe for its citizens, and to end the rampant abuse of power in the nation. To this day, the citizen’s movements that grew from the #ThisFlag phenomenon are going strong and are tools of change across the country.

These are not the only social media movements that have stimulated long term change. Others include the #FeesMustFall movement, which has affected change in the highest echelons of the political landscape. The government has now begun implementing a plan to provide free education to those who cannot afford it. This is a practical change that stems from movements that began on social media. Notice though, that these movements were all accompanied by on-the-ground action. To truly affect change, this form of activism must be accompanied with physical action as well, such as peaceful resistance, whether it be standing in front of Parliament or standing tall in the face of opposition. This will aid social media activism, which in turn can enhance and publicize the stand that is being taken. Social media activism has merit of its own accord… but coupled with unwavering dedication and commitment to action it is a powerful and effective method to ignite change.

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