How Activists Use Social Media for Good — and You Can Too

An article about a legislative initiative to defund Planned Parenthood was the last straw for me. It was 2014, and I was still paying my way through college by serving as a host at a local restaurant. But the article came as I was learning more about how my rights to make decisions about my body were increasingly under attack. It left me feeling powerless and unsure of what to do, but with a belief that I needed to do something

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So I turned to social media. 

That sounds trite now, but back then, for me, it was a big deal. My journey started with adding a pro-Planned Parenthood frame to my Facebook profile picture. For a while, that’s all I thought I could do. Eventually, I connected with a Facebook friend who volunteered at a women’s clinic, walking clients past protesters to get to their appointments. It wasn’t long before I was out there with her almost every weekend. 

My story isn’t unique. It’s an illustration of how social media opened a door to activism and a network of people and organizations already taking action and contributing to change. In 2020 about one-third of social media users reported using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to show support for a cause, look up rallies or protests in their area, and encourage others to take action regarding important issues, according to a Pew Research Center study.

The statistic runs counter to the narrative that social media posts about causes such as climate change, anti-Asian hate or Black Lives Matter are more performance than substance. In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 80% of Americans said social media platforms were effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues. For many people, the social media gateway to activism is very real – particularly over the last two difficult pandemic years. 

Social media has gained a reputation over the years for misinformation and distrust, but it’s also an important tool for activists and advocacy groups. With its nonstop nature and widespread reach, social media isn’t something they could ignore anyway. Instead, many have embraced it and rethought their strategy around recruiting and getting their message out.

Blanca Gamez, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy organizing director, said advocacy groups are cognizant of waves of awareness and attention on social media as well, and try to make them work for the cause’s benefit. 

“People pay attention to what’s happening on their social media,” Gamez said. “If you keep seeing the message over and over again, repeating on Twitter, tagging somebody, people pay attention.” 

Activism has changed since the advent of social media 

Tamarra Wieder, state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates Kentucky, traces her activism roots back to protests around the Iraq War in the early aughts. During the protests, Wieder saw the stark reality of police brutality, as well as how native communities and communities of color in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, were often singled out and targeted. 

“It woke me up,” Wieder said of her early experiences. “I thought of myself as an activist, but I didn’t know how to channel it [and] be helpful, versus just showing up and not knowing what to do.” 

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Leo Bierman attended the Extinction Rebellion demonstration in 2019. He got interested in activism when he saw a livestream of XR’s first meeting.

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Things have changed dramatically since her activist early days. Facebook, Twitter and social media as we know them today weren’t available then. Now that these platforms are part of everyday life for most of us, Wieder says that not using social media raises the risk of disenfranchising some people. 

In Kentucky, Wieder said, social media helps citizens more easily get involved during legislative sessions. Without the privilege of a flexible work schedule, the number of people who can head to Frankfort, the state capital, to support or protest a bill is limited. While it’s not a perfect solution, social media can make space for people and make it easier to be involved in the democratic legislative process. According to Wieder, live-tweeting, livestreaming and digital Zoom days (instead of in-person lobby days) allow people to engage on their lunch breaks. 

But when pandemic-fueled social-distancing and lockdown orders went into effect in 2020, social media wasn’t just an important tool – in some cases, it was the only one that mattered.

Social media keeps activism accessible during COVID-19

George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 wasn’t the first instance of police brutality caught on video. It wasn’t even the first to be shared on social media. But a heady brew of outrage over the video, coupled with a lockdown that had millions cooped up at home and glued to their screens, led to a summer of protests across the US and around the world.

With everyone stuck at home, many turned to social media to show their support. It started with a change in their profile picture. But Facebook and Twitter also served as rallying points to coordinate public demonstrations in real life, many of which were livestreamed

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Social media is a key tool for Black Lives Matter organization — from meeting places and times to supply requests and more. 

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Those livestreams and videos also played a big role in another issue that came to the forefront during the pandemic: an escalation of xenophobia and bigotry against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

The footage added another layer of information and offered a window into the impacted community, according to Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese Affirmative Action. About a year ago, 65-year-old Vilma Kari was attacked on her way to church. Closed-circuit footage captured the attack and later went viral online. In early March of this year, footage surfaced of a New York man punching a 67-year-old Asian woman 125 times. Seeing that impact can help make a person become aware of pervasive social issues and motivate them to seek out ways to help. 

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When footage is captured of a hate crime, it tends to go viral on social media, forcing people to confront the pervasiveness of a social justice issue.

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This is what Choi does every day through Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 2020 in response to that rise in violence. The coalition collects, tracks and responds to reports of hate, harassment and discrimination against those communities in the US. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Stop AAPI Hate has collected more than 9,000 reports of anti-Asian incidents.

“It’s been very powerful in the sense that we’re able to use social media and other spaces to keep the conversation going,” Choi told me. “Not only just to encourage people to report, but also to bring visibility [and] both immediate and long-term solutions that we’re seeking.” 

Because of the accessibility of social media, rallying people to a cause is easier than ever in the age of COVID. 

“Early on it was all phone-banking, door-knocking and tabling,” Wieder said. “COVID really changed how we were able to do organizing, and digital organizing became a huge part of our arsenal.”

Social media challenges

Even though social media can put a spotlight on topics that aren’t leading on mainstream media outlets, equally important stories and footage can still get lost in the constant stream of content. 

T.J. Billard, an assistant professor at Northwestern University School of Communication, said that social media has arguably made getting visibility for a cause more challenging, especially in comparison to the 1960s and 1970s, when four networks were pretty much all that was available on TV. This essentially guaranteed an understanding of the targeted audience and that a massive chunk of the population would see the message.

It’s gotten exponentially more fragmented. 

“Right now we’re in a type of media environment where you need to work to saturate so many more channels of communication in hopes of reaching that kind of visibility,” Billard said. “So the work of doing it is harder, and activists are working in an environment that’s plagued by a lot more ambiguity.” 

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Social media moves fast. New information is constantly arriving and updating. Sometimes just opening the Twitter app can be overwhelming.

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Social media teams for these groups are ready for these challenges. Organizations lean into them, closely studying which platforms address specific demographics, even studying fine details like the color schemes of shared posts. 

Then there’s the need to cut through the noise when something goes viral. 

Emily Patterson, the ACLU’s associate director of social media and merchandise, said waves of awareness can get many communities talking publicly about an issue that smaller groups have been working on for much longer. These smaller groups need to contend with disagreement and misinformation while also providing people with guidance on what they can do. 

“When an issue is suddenly getting a lot of attention, there’s a delicate balance on social media between giving newcomers to the issue easy ways to take action and get more involved, pushing back against increased misinformation and being drowned out by large accounts who are suddenly very interested in the topic,” she said.

How to meaningfully engage 

Social media is an emotional roller coaster. Just a few minutes on an app will show you a humanitarian crisis happening overseas sandwiched between a cat meme and your cousin’s vacation photos. 

Even with the best intentions, it’s hard to focus on one topic for more than a few moments on social media. More than 3.6 billion people use social media as of 2020 – and it’s almost guaranteed that those people are using multiple platforms, contributing to an unceasing bombardment of information demanding your attention and claiming to be most important.

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Social media, though not without its flaws, can be a helpful way to connect, learn and meaningfully contribute to a cause.

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But there is a way to take advantage of social media in a meaningful way. Here are a few tips on how to participate in and genuinely contribute to activism efforts on social media.

Social media is just one tool 

Activism was around before social media, and it will continue to exist if the platforms were to ever go away. While offering a show of support on your cover image is a good step, know that there is potentially more you can do. This will look different based on our different schedules, financial means, mental health spectrums and understandings of social issues.

“Our first instinct is to turn to [social media] because it’s easy,” Billard said. “And I don’t mean easy in the sense of low effort, but [in the way] that it’s available to us constantly. It’s familiar to us and we know what to do. But it also sometimes does induce [feelings] of hopelessness [because] it seems impossible to have any effect on this kind of firehose of information and tragedy.” 

According to Billard, sometimes the best choice is putting social media aside and investigating how you can engage with communities and networks outside of the digital sphere. 

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Social media only goes so far. If you’re burned out on retweets and hashtags, find out how you can help in-person efforts. 

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Find the root of the movement

We run the risk of falling into performative activism when our actions on social media become more about what we get out of it, instead of staying focused on the collective cause. Listening to the stories of directly impacted people and communities (and amplifying them) is more important than putting your opinion out on social media. 

For Choi and her team, spotlighting relatable stories is crucial. The Stop AAPI Hate reporting center receives a massive range of reports detailing everyday experiences of people in the AAPI community. 

“Just because [a reported incident] isn’t criminal [or] just because they didn’t call the police, doesn’t mean that it’s not something that we should be paying attention to,” Choi said. “We’re using these stories to advocate for public policy solutions. We’re using these stories to talk with lawmakers.”

It’s also important to be aware of your surroundings and report incidents of racism that you might witness yourself. If you see someone being harassed in public, it can be easy to assume someone else will step in to help. This is called the bystander effect, and you can find training in your local area to help understand it and combat it.

Understanding your privilege, whatever that looks like for you, is also important in helping marginalized communities.   

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Even if you can’t attend a rally, there are dozens of ways to support a cause and spread awareness. 

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Decide what going beyond social media looks like for you

When it comes to social media, it can be easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to another’s actions. You didn’t have time to go to a rally at city hall, but you donated to the grassroots group that organized the demonstration. That’s certainly better than just changing your profile picture frame right? Genuine activism, especially on ever-changing social media platforms, is far less black and white.

Wieder, Choi, Gamez and Billard agreed that it’s difficult and unfair to try to define what genuine activism looks like. How you show up for a cause on social media or outside of digital spaces will look different from person to person. 

According to Wieder, if someone is showing up for a cause in their most authentic capacity, there shouldn’t be any shame. Yes, even if it’s just a simple change in your photo.

“Changing that profile picture could be a monumental conversation starter in a conservative family,” Wieder said. “It’s about meeting your supporters where they are and creating safe spaces for them to learn and grow and then maybe feel comfortable enough to come out to a rally, [or] one day door-knock or phone-bank [with us]. We’re all on the same page in many ways, and creating a ‘who’s a better activist’ is not productive.”