#Tagging on to Digital Activism: Twitter’s Implications in Social Change

Artwork by Victoria Vincent / http://vewn.us / @vewn / https://vewn.tumblr.com

Social media is revolutionizing the way individuals are communicating. In the era of networked societies and the popular use of digital connection, information is created and shared across the globe at an incredible speed. With this shift in social behaviours, many realities of our everyday life are also being altered to exist solely within the online world. Practices such as dating, completing a university class, collaborating with colleagues, or following a sourdough recipe are regularly becoming available on digital platforms. These processes are especially common with regards to activism and the desire to participate in social movements. Through the power of the internet, people are subscribing to campaigns and connecting with like-minded individuals with hopes of contributing to change. As a result of hashtags, viral videos, memes, and mass posting, people are given tools which enable them to self-disclose their feelings and participate in global conversations. Through the engagement of audiences from all over the world, digital activism revolutionized the way in which individuals communicate by increasing the exposure to highly stigmatized issues in society. Moreover, various social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Twitter have made connecting with the digital world easily accessible. 

Twitter is a social media platform that has often provided a jumping off point for viral conversations. Created in 2006, the microblogging and social networking service allows users to create individual content while connecting with other individuals. Posts are shared online in regards to current topics being discussed in the world. The application is available in more than 40 languages and can be accessed through a smartphone application or via twitter.com. Whenever a user creates a post, the information is known as a “tweet”. These condensed messages can contain a variety of content such as: 280 characters, 140 second videos, or a maximum of four pictures. Additionally, users can live stream from their devices in order to immediately connect with their audiences. These bursts of short and inconsequential information are what created the name, Twitter, which was meant to allude to the chirping of birds. According to Twitter’s yearly investor fact sheet, the platform saw approximately 330 million users for the year of 2019. Discussions surrounding sports, politics, religion, climate change, and everyday interests are commonly shared and debated. Similarly, topics surrounding sexual abuse and rape culture have become frequently exposed to online interactions. Equally important to feminist-oriented internet dialogue, political activism has also shifted to being frequently represented on digital platforms. More specifically, calls for gun reform have often manifested themselves on Twitter in the form of thread discussions and heavily hash-tagged statements. Furthermore, anti-government protests and the demand for an end to violence against racially marginalized communities has also gained recognition across digital protests. Through a comparative analysis of the #MeToo movement and the March for Our Lives gun control protests, this essay will establish how digital activism has impacted the cultural practice of engagement with social change. Moreover, I will examine how Twitter is used to convey a viral message while communicating with mass audiences. Additionally, I will analyze how the practice of online activism requires individuals to question their sources and carefully evaluate the parameters of their virtual participation. Finally, I will question whether Twitter’s conventions constitute online protests as valid social change movements. 

The term #MeToo first appeared in 2006 when it was created by social activist Tarana Burke. She started posting the phrase on her MySpace account in order to bring empowerment to individuals who experienced sexual assault and abuse. It wasn’t until October 15th, 2017, when actress Alyssa Milano shared the hashtag on her Twitter that it was noticed globally. Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) wrote: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet” (Milano, 2017). Within hours, her post generated thousands of replies, comments, likes, and retweets and inspired thousands more individuals to come forward with original posts. Men and women from around the world were sharing their personal stories and were confronting rape culture digitally. The movement spread like wildfire and quickly became a hot topic of discussion in mainstream media, Hollywood as well as various other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. The #MeToo hashtag became a tool of solidarity that was used both anonymously and by individuals who chose to self-identify. In this instance, it connected tweets that were related to an individual subject, thereby creating a public audience for that issue. In turn, users were able to add to the viral dialogue by simply incorporating the hashtag into their message. This gives the possibility to marginalized individuals to not only share their story, but to include themselves in a movement around the subject. Through the comfort of digital activism, participants did not have to venture into a physical public space and could comment anonymously about the contested issues. Within 280 characters or less, users were able to narrate their story. In the weeks following Milano’s tweet, it became evident that the #MeToo movement was just the tip of the iceberg in regards to navigating the widespread online demonstrations surrounding sexual assault. Moreover, according to Claire Gersen, “What sets #MeToo apart from the other hashtags addressing sexual harassment is not that it introduced a feminist debate on social media or that it uses a hashtag as an activist tool in the battle against sexism, but the sheer magnitude in which it [was] being used” (Gersen, 2). When Tarana Burke participated in TED Women 2018, she emphasized that Me Too is a movement, not a moment. She explained that “…more and more people are joining this movement every single day. That part is clear. People are putting their bodies on the line and raising their voices to say, ‘Enough is enough” (Burke, 2018). Nonetheless, it must be made clear that #MeToo is not an isolated online movement that advocates for sexual assault survivors and allies. Similarly, the #NotGuilty campaign was created in 2015 by Ione Wells, an Oxford student who wanted to encourage survivors to not feel guilty when sharing about their sexual assault stories. Since then, the platform has grown into a website that gives survivors of abuse a voice and a platform to speak out on. This all-inclusive digital space welcomes anonymous stories and later displays them for future users to read, while simultaneously providing sources of outreach to sexual assault and domestic violence hotlines.  

As hashtags, viral statements, and online calls to action flood our screens, it is obvious that sexual abuse is not rare. Sexual assault, along with other injustices, is regularly reported in the media. However, what is unique about campaigns such as #MeToo and #NotGuilty is that these injustices were not framed as just new stories, but rather as first-hand experiences from real people who were creating a movement of online solidarity. Above all, these internet discussions were providing individuals with key tools that they previously lacked: a platform to speak out on. According to a statement given by Ione Wells during her TED talk How we talk about sexual assault online, “The voices of those directly affected were at the forefront of the story — not the voices of journalists or commentators on social media. And that’s why the story was news” (Wells, 2016). Nonetheless, the rapid interconnectedness and highly digitalized nature of our society has created a trend of spontaneous reactivity. More precisely, people are often compelled to perform as a member of an online movement by simply retweeting, reposting, or responding to a viral hashtag. We are often urged to do anything so long as we are able to show others that we too, have reacted. This unmeasurable practice of unconscious reaction often harmfully impacts social media activism as it creates an ambiguous messiness of hashtags that essentially draws the attention away from the core principles of a viral message. Wells states that “The problem with reacting in this manner en masse is it can sometimes mean that we don’t actually react at all […] It might make ourselves feel better, like we’ve contributed to a group mourning or outrage, but it doesn’t actually change anything. And what’s more, it can sometimes drown out the voices of those directly affected by the injustice, whose needs must be heard” (Wells, 2016). Understanding this, it is imperative that as subscribers to a viral movement, we are aware of the impact that our scrolling and sharing creates within the online space surrounding rape culture dialogue.  

Artwork by Victoria Vincent / http://vewn.us / @vewn / https://vewn.tumblr.com

In the age of networked communication and social media activity, major historical events are often immortalized online. All commentary and dialogue is suspended within a digital sphere, providing a vivid illustration of how global events were represented on social media during the height of their viral popularity. In this regard, Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms used for the dissemination of breaking news. The rapid nature of an active timeline full of a steady flow of content is what makes Twitter the ideal platform for quickly connecting with the world. Understandably, when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the world stopped and watched as the entire massacre was broadcast live to Twitter by the students themselves. On February 14th, 2018, 17 people were killed and 17 more were injured when a man opened fire while armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Over the span of one afternoon, Twitter exploded with viral tweets from a variety of students who later became the face of the March for Our Lives movement.  

When conducting an analysis of Twitter’s conventions, we must ask ourselves what constitutes a media source as credible? How are we able to trust a social media platform, in this case Twitter, to give us our accurate daily news reports? These questions can be answered by dividing our news sources into two categories: factual reports and fabricated information. In reference to the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the first reporters on the scene of the attack were the students themselves. By taking advantage of a social media application that was created specifically for microblogging, high schoolers demonstrated how Twitter can be used as a credible news outlet. Through the acts of videotaping locked down classrooms and posting photos of the student body, providing updates on the status of the shooting, as well as writing genuine statements of fear and anxiety, the credibility of these sources could not be disputed. More specifically, journalist Charlotte Alter for TIME magazine described how David Hogg, a survivor of the attack, “…took a video of students crouching inside a tiny classroom to hide from the shooter” and posted it to Twitter where “The video went viral” (Alter, 2018). Similarly, Delaney Tarr, another survivor of the school shooting, spoke to reporter Kendall Karson from ABC News saying that “[The survivors] used Twitter in a way that no other shooting survivor has been able to use it. [We know] how to get people to notice us and listen to us” (Tarr, 2018). Undoubtedly, the use of social media is something that the current generation of young internet users is fluent in; they know how to communicate with their peers, and Twitter is the ideal place to do it.

Twitter’s mechanics and technical features are what allowed for the Parkland high schoolers to represent themselves within a movement that gained international attention. American writer Jesse S. Cohn & Professor Rhon Teruelle emphasize that “this tactic of preemptive self-representation successfully shifted media attention away from the act of the individual perpetrator and toward the collective inaction of lawmakers giving rise, in the process, to a powerful narrative about the students’ own agency” (Cohn, Teruelle, 4). In the weeks following the shooting, Parkland students took to Twitter once again to advocate for participation in @March4OurLives. They created the hashtag #NeverAgain, which became the slogan at the centre of a youth driven movement. More specifically, March for Our Lives campaigned as a movement that is committed to ending gun violence within schools, communities, and within the entirety of the United States. The call to action that first presented itself as an online conversation surrounding gun reform laws grew to staggering numbers when support for #NeverAgain began to gain traction outside of the digital sphere. The first big test for the organization presented itself on March 24th, when March for Our Lives held a rally in Washington D.C. Content creator and writer for PRovoke Media, Paul Holmes points out that “Just one month and 10 days after the incident in Parkland, more than 800,000 people came together in Washington, DC, for the national March for Our Lives, with many thousands more joining smaller marches in cities across America”(Holmes, 3). What started as an online reaction on Twitter in response to a gun violence attack led to the creation of some of the most recognized slogans of 2018.

When analyzing all of the online activism that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high-school students have been doing, it is quite remarkable to observe the mass amount of attention they have been able to gain online. From turning into representatives for their own story to advocating for gun reform, these students are an example of credible digital activism. However, despite the presumed reliability of the Parkland shooting and the viral spotlight that it received, the internet saw a spike in misinformation following the attack. According to the New York Times, within an hour of news being released on the school shooting, Twitter accounts that were suspected of having ties with Russia already released hundreds of tweets in regards to the gun control debate. Although we have already established that the Stoneman Douglas students were creating honest media through their use of Twitter, the engagement of fabricated accounts is what stirred further controversy. When analyzing Twitter as a platform that can be used to facilitate digital activism, corrupt information is used to draw attention away from the core voice of a movement. In this instance, the fact that Parkland students experienced counter attackswith the goal of devaluing the strength of their networked message is just one isolated example that illustrates how tricky it can be to navigate information online. More specifically, the goal of misinformation is to spark tensions between groups of varying opinions on controversial issues. The New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Daisuke Wakayabashi write that “One of the most divisive issues in the nation is how to handle guns, pitting Second Amendment advocates against proponents of gun control. And the messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult” (Frenkel, Wakayabashi, 2018). In reference to the Parkland shooting, Twitter posts including the hashtags #guncontrolnow, #gunreformnow, and #Parklandshooting were used to spread incorrect news. Jeff Semple, the former Europe Bureau Chief for Global news, explains that “These accounts, run by Russian trolls, picked up thousands of real followers and their posts were retweeted and mentioned tens of millions of times by other genuine users and real people [who] were liking, sharing, and promoting this Russian troll activity without even knowing” (Semple, 2019). Immersing themselves into the middle of the gun reform debate, these posts impaired the viral impact that March for Our Lives was aiming to create. These online disagreements were meant to weaken the alliances of a movement that was gaining popularity both online and in the real world. Semple states that “social media actually has the power to sway someone’s political beliefs to change their vote, [and to] limit the research that is available on that subject” (Semple, 2019). Using March for Our Lives as an example, the confusion that was created online allowed non-supporters of the movement to label it as a disorganized and failed social experiment. Understanding this, it is important that Twitter users navigate the online world with caution. 

Artwork by Victoria Vincent / http://vewn.us / @vewn / https://vewn.tumblr.com

Every day, I spend an average of one hour on Twitter. When amplified within the context of digital activism, my exposure and interaction with viral tweets is not always equal. The over saturation of mass amounts of information can be overwhelming. As a result, individuals such as myself tend to brush by online social change initiatives with a simple swipe or like. The act of acquiring a digital participation ribbon is often seen as enough when deciding how far to extend our media participation. American writer Evgeny Morozov coined this lazy approach to online activism as “slacktivism”. As someone who studies how the internet affects global politics, Morozov has paid particular attention to Twitter’s involvement with digital social change movements. In short, he explains that our desire to feel useful within the parameters of a mass action commonly reduces our engagement with campaigns to meaningless participation. Apart from retweeting a hashtag or liking a status update, we are not held accountable or deemed responsible for any further action outside of our digital reality. Morozov writes that at the core of all slacktivism is “the unrealistic assumption that, given enough awareness, all problems are solvable […]” (Morozov, 2009). He adds by saying that “The key lesson here is that when everyone in the group performs the same mundane tasks, it’s impossible to evaluate individual contributions; thus, people inevitably begin slacking off. Increasing the number of other persons diminishes the relative social pressure on each person […] At some point one simply needs to learn how to convert awareness into action” (Morozov, 2009).

Twitter’s mass discussions, confusing misinformation, and a variety of tweet activity frequently distracts users from the goals of online social change initiatives. This raises the question of what do we consider as being legitimate support of an issue? Is simply writing #MeToo or #NeverAgain in a tweet enough to be defined as an authentic response? The answer lies in the undeniable fact that, no matter how small your contribution is, it is better than no contribution at all. Creating online communities of people who publicly announce their support for an issue is an honest place to start when wanting to become involved with social change. In regards to the #MeToo movement, the participatory nature of self-disclosure prevented campaign subscribers from slacking off. Instead, through the intimate admission of private stories surrounding sexual assault, survivors and allies were creating a safe space for discussion. The only difference being that these conversations were happening online instead of in person. Similarly, March for Our Lives asked members of #NeverAgain to participate in distinctively non-trivial tasks. Through online mobilization, Parkland high-school students spearheaded a public rally across the US. This meaningful exercise of showing up both online and in person was what held individuals accountable for their efforts towards gun reform. It is safe to say that a hashtag is never enough action when dealing with global issues surrounding human rights, climate change, or international politics. However, it is a start. In the age of interconnectivity, learning how to use platforms like Twitter is the first step towards becoming a well-informed member of the online world.

Artwork by Victoria Vincent / http://vewn.us / @vewn / https://vewn.tumblr.com

Alter, Charlotte. “The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough.” TIME, WarnerMedia, Meredith Corporation, 22 March 2018, https://time.com/longform/never-again- movement/. Accessed 19 April 2020. 

@Alyssa_Milano. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” 15 October 2017, 1:21 pm. Tweet.

Burke, Tarana. “Me too is a movement, not a moment.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 4 January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP3LaAYzA3Q. Accessed 20 April 2020.

Cohn, S. Jess, Teruelle, Rohn. “When the “Children” Speak for Themselves: The Tactical Use of Social Media by the Survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting.” Democratic Communiqué, Vol. 28., 2 November 2019 pp. 1–13.

Frenkel, Sheera, Wakayabashi, Daisuke. “After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced.” The New York Ties Publisher, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/19/ technology/russian-bots-school-shooting.html. Accessed 20 April 2020. 

Gersen, Claire. “Tagging onto #MeToo.” Masters of Media, 16 November 2017, mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/blog/2017/11/16/tagging-onto-metoo/. Accessed 18 April 2020. 

 Holmes, Paul. “PRovoke19: How March For Our Lives Went From Moment To Movement.” PRovoke Media, 24 October 2019, https://www.provokemedia.com/latest/article/ provoke19-how-march-for-our-lives-went-from-moment-to-movement. Accessed 20 April 2020. 

Karson, Kendall. “Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr’s 2018 message: ‘I’m voting for my life’” ABC News, 24 March 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/parkland-survivor-delaney- tarrs-2018-message-im-voting/story?id=53953974. Accessed 19 April 2020. 

Morozov, Evgeny. “From slacktivism to activism.” Foreign Policy Insider, 5 September 2009, https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/09/05/from-slacktivism-to-activism/. Accessed 20 April 2020. 

Semple, Jeff. “Russia Rising: Hunting for Internet Trolls.” Global News Radio, 26 January 2019, https://curiouscast.ca/podcast/364/russia-rising/. Accessed 20 April 2020.

Wells, Ione. “How we talk about sexual assault online.” Youtube, uploaded by TED, 16 October 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZviHInGBJQ. Accessed 20 April 2020.

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