Armchair Activism: how social media changed the way we make change

Armchair Activism: how social media changed the way we make change

Megan Elias

This article is part of the Winter 2020 Magazine Issue series. To read the full Winter issue click: here.


Following any type of social justice issue or human rights violation, social media networks are flooded with petitions, infographics or links to donation pages. Everyone has something to say, or advice to give, about how to help the negatively impacted individuals. Social media has introduced a powerful way to share information about the injustices people face all over the world, and with social media, anyone can be a reporter. Due to the power of video, Twitter and other social media platforms, news about issues like police brutality are often accompanied with hard evidence and can go viral within minutes. But unfortunately, after everyone’s Twitter feed “goes back to normal,” the problem doesn’t disappear. This phenomenon begs the question: How can we, in an age of information, translate retweets into action? 

Enter armchair activism: a phrase to explain the sharing and posting about protests happening across the world and how to help people facing injustices. Armchair activism is a person retweeting a petition without actually signing it or reminding people to donate to charities but neglecting to do so themselves.

No one can truly make educated decisions without first obtaining resources to inform themselves. Social media has proven itself to be good for doing just that, but if people choose not to act after receiving information, lasting change will come far slower than anticipated. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found nearly eight in ten Americans feel “social media make [sic.] people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t.” This is an issue many activists have difficulty navigating: maintaining the importance of sharing information via social media and its vitality to starting movements but also remembering action is necessary for keeping the movement alive. So how do we combat armchair activism?

This dilemma is not confined to one area of activism but manifests in different ways. For example, many multimedia publication companies usually reserve space to run one piece about any given current visibility month or week. Although trivial, how can these companies translate seemingly minimal gestures into lasting change?

The Nature of Social Media

From the time children first access the internet, they are told to be careful of what they post online, mainly because it becomes permanent and can be accessed by anyone. Michigan State University senior Tony Possanza said, “Teachers would really emphasize two things with regards to internet safety: never give information about yourself out on the internet, and never send revealing/inappropriate pictures to anyone, even people you know.” 

Although a noble notion, what started out as a warning about stranger danger has somehow warped into user hypercriticism of the way their appearance and lifestyle are being perceived by others. Since everyone can find everything about us, it’s safest to make sure only the absolute best photos are posted.

This culture was not created overnight. As human beings, we have always felt the need to be accepted and desired. Now, with the help of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, that desire is quantifiable through the “like” functions on posts. With these sites and apps specifically designed to be addictive, users unsurprisingly keep coming back for more of this immediate and highly accessible validation. 

The content that garners likes shifts when a national or global event takes place. Many people make the effort to modify the content they usually post and shine a spotlight on the issue at hand. For example, during pride month, many social media users choose to bring awareness to the barriers to equality queer people face. Likewise, during the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, posts related to assisting families of the countless Black Americans whose lives have been taken by police and opinions about defunding the police were impossible to miss on all social platforms.

These calls to action never disappear entirely but do often fall out of the public eye after a few weeks. As proven by the most-liked Instagram post of all time, a photo of an egg, people enjoy seeing things that make them happy as opposed to being informed about the severe shortcomings of society. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that “55% of adult social media users say they feel ‘worn out’ by how many political posts and discussions they see on social media.” At first, it can feel good to be informed about current events because it allows us to feel like we’re making a difference. Unfortunately, though, after time passes and it seems as though nothing is changing, that triumphant feeling disappears.

The problem deepens as social media users find out just how difficult it is to enact change. One study on attention span, conducted by public relations specialist Carol A. Bodensteiner, suggests that once “the public begins to realize a solution would cost a lot,” there is “a decline in public interest.” Thus, with people’s attention spans only getting shorter, any single phenomenon can only remain in the spotlight for so long. 

Ferguson, Missouri

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson sparked protests and riots across Ferguson, Missouri. In the days and weeks following the event, social media was ablaze with resources on how to protest safely, donation pages for Brown’s family and petitions to have former officer Wilson experience justice in a number of ways. People were so committed to ensuring that the general public was informed that, in the words of MSU  student Max Martin, “it was mentally exhausting. I would talk to my family about everything and get mentally exhausted, then go online and get pressured into posting about the same thing and make myself exhausted again.”

After a few weeks, posts about the riots and police brutality at large slowed down considerably. A few weeks after that, the subject was completely absent from social media timelines everywhere. Unarmed Black people continued to be killed and incarcerated disproportionately as social media and news coverage shifted back to their regularly scheduled programming.

Pride Month

Armchair activism is also present in large businesses. Every June, as LGBTQ+ Pride Month commences, countless companies modify their logos to have a rainbow theme. Their goal is to make potential customers feel that the company cares about queer people in order to secure their dollar. Official social accounts of companies ranging from Gatorade to Victoria’s Secret rebrand their email newsletters, social media accounts and websites to include rainbow themed content. Although at first glance this seems beneficial to the queer community, these corporate money grabs often end up doing more harm than good.

“If people want to buy something pride-themed, it’s easier to shop from a big store or on Amazon because they have the backing to advertise and to charge less because they can mass-produce,” Martin said. “Small businesses run by queer peple don’t have those abilities and often lose revenue because they have to charge more, and because June is marketed as the only time you can buy anything pride-related.”

Large companies have the upper-hand in getting products to consumers, which means they often win the competition for “the gay dollar.” As long as they choose not to use their profits to donate money to LGBTQ+ charities or people in need, the month meant to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969 instead becomes an opportunity to increase revenue.

Leelah Alcorn

Though alarmingly scarce, there are great examples of how social media and on-the-ground activism can work in tandem to create change. In December of 2014, the death of one transgender teenager became national news.

Leelah Alcorn, a resident of Labanon, Ohio, scheduled her suicide note to post online. It circulated the internet and gathered national attention as she identified herself as a victim of conversion therapy and transphobia. In her letter, she called for change, saying, “My death needs to mean something.” After her note was posted, it reached trending status on Twitter, and vigils were held globally. It was undoubtedly a turn toward the mainstream for Trans activism.

Alcorn’s demand to “fix society” was heard, and after several petitions, the proposal for Leelah’s Law, a law to ban the usage of conversion therapy, was enacted in Cincinnati. President Obama, while not calling for a law at the federal level, declared he was supportive of any states that sought to enact similar legislation.

The struggle is not over, however. As reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, transgender teens are far more likely to attmept suicide than their cisgender peers. Although more work is required, future social media activism, vigils, petitions and protests will be instrumental in successfully laying the groundwork for further social progress.

George Floyd and Black Lives Matter

Another example of the use of social media and on-the-ground activism manifested this summer as the most recent instance of police brutality gained national coverage: the unprovoked murder of George Floyd. After the news broke and video footage from a bystander was released of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, the citizens of Minneapolis donned their face masks and took to the streets to protest the unnecessary violence. 

During these protests, police officers used tear gas and other dangerous crowd control methods that have been banned by the Geneva Convention as chemical warfare. This prompted the protests to spread further, allowing the movement to receive even greater support. It was due to this support that over the course of a few short weeks George Floyd became an international martyr.

Two months before this, on March 13th, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police during a raid targeting Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. These two events in such quick succession contributed to international protests against police brutality and other forms of systemic racism in the United States and around the world.

Over the course of the next several months, protesters still showed no signs of letting up until positive change was enacted. Many individuals, celebrities and companies took part in the social movement as well. The protests and hashtags gained so much traction that June 2nd of 2020 was deemed Blackout Tuesday, a day for people and corporations to halt their normal content in order to give Black content creators and protest organizers a spotlight. Local and national news stations even hosted protestors to discuss solutions such as defunding and reallocating police budgets, which span as much as $5.61 billion dollars in New York City.

After experiencing pressure from these social movements, lawmakers in Louisville unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law,” banning no-knock search warrants like the one that was used to enter Taylor’s home. Four months later, in October 2020, racial-justice protests are still taking place. Although present, coverage of more recent demonstrations is a rare sight in mainstream news programs and receives much less social media traffic.

“Now I see people post ‘daily reminders’ that these things are still going on and to keep talking about it,” Martin stated. The number of resources and posts about Black Lives Matter is not nearly as high as the peak shortly after Floyd’s death, but there is still information circulating that calls for the arrest of the officers on the raid that ended in Taylor’s death and videos that expose the corrupt tendencies of police forces.

The sheer magnitude of 2020’s Black Lives Matter rallies has made the movement impossible to ignore. It is unlike any mass protest this country has seen thus far, surpassing even the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The uprising from special interest groups and the general public prompted statements of support and monetary donations from companies in droves. The promotion of Black-owned businesses and companies expressing how they will contribute to racial equality has quickly become the norm, demonstrating that this movement is still receiving support and coverage long after its start.

When Social Media is the Only Option

Although proven to be highly effective, attending a protest and taking a direct action is not a viable option for everybody. For people who live in rural areas, organizing a large gathering can range from challenging to impossible. Likewise, teargas used by law enforcement to break up crowds has been proven to cause long-term lung and health issues, and for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, physically attending a protest can become deadly very quickly.

Concurrently, risks don’t just come from state-sanctioned violence. For people like Candace (name changed for privacy), who lives in a rural town in Western Michigan, next-door neighbors can become aggressors. Candace’s town held a Black Lives Matter protest outside the local police department, but she worried for the protestors’ safety.

“Any protests [like Black Lives Matter] would probably not be safe… the area is majority right-wing, and most don’t take too kindly to any left-wing views,” she said. 

The town has had protests in the past, including an anti-abortion group gathering near a local elementary school and students at the local high school protesting the banning of the confederate flag on school property. For Candace, these signs all point toward her town being unwelcoming to social justice-based groups. For this reason, many people in similar situations are left with social media as the only viable option to spread information about movements like Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ activism.

Activism is Still Active

Despite the ebb and flow of social justice-related posts on social media, not everyone has abandoned hope. As Bodensteiner predicts, “special interest groups are likely to continue to stay aware of and involved in the discussion.” Members of established organizations like the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign continue to create waves in the political sphere with events and demonstrations. Furthermore, movements like Black Lives Matter and Antifa, with the help of social media, now hold much more power than they once did, even outside of a protest environment. 

“Now I see some posts telling people not to get burnt out and to keep posting because change isn’t here yet,” Martin said. Others remind people that “taking a mental break doesn’t make you a bad person.”  

Social media users who choose to share posts but are unwilling or unable to go out and fight alongside on-the-ground activists can do their part to keep conversations going by making the effort to sign petitions and donating to the accounts they retweet. One of the biggest ways to enact change is by staying informed on issues and voting for local and federal politicians who will listen to the will of the people.

Conclusion

With more people than ever before in a position to take action, more people than ever before have taken action. Crowds of people in face masks and protective gear have turned out to protest the unjust killings of Black Americans. When those peaceful protests are met with government-sanctioned crowd control measures such as tear gas and rubber bullets, it creates a fury that only drives the protests to grow in number and intensity. 

The focus of the social media coverage following this movement has been about people educating themselves on societal privilege. White Americans can use their voices to amplify those of Black Americans and recognize that turning off their phone and ignoring the problem is not an option for most people. Now more than ever, people have used strength in numbers to create change.


Megan Elias is a senior double majoring in professional writing and linguistics with a minor in graphic design. In addition to working at The Current, she is also the junior history editor at The Tempest magazine and the content editor at Sherlockian.net. When she’s not working, she can be found riding around campus on her longboard or playing Tetris 99.


Sidebar: Why the George Floyd Protests Received So Much Traction

Racially-motivated violence and subsequent protests are, unfortunately, not new for the United States. After World War I, while the country was facing the Spanish Flu epidemic, racial tensions between white Americans and Black WWI veterans became violent during the Red Summer of 1919. History then repeated itself at the close of World War II as white Americnas feared Black citizens would increase competition for jobs. Riots broke out again, and police again sided with the white attackers.

Black Americans utilized protests and sit-ins that in time blossomed into the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Protests organized by Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and many other activists are traditionally recorded in history textbooks as overwhelmingly peaceful, but in reality, peaceful marches were often met with attack dogs, water canons and gunfire at the hands of the majority-white police forces.

Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, police brutality protests have taken place sporadically following major incidents, but the most recent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have become arguably the largest-scale movement in history, surpassing even the Long Hot Summer of July 1967.

So what led to such a monumental turnout? Surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far caused over 210,000 deaths in the United states alone, has created opportunities to protest that did not exist before. With 32 million Americans receiving unemployment payments, people have more time to safely educate themselves on matters and to attend these events, which can occur during a typical workday.