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What you need to know about social media activism

Protests in the Middle East, known as "The Arab Spring," echoed around the world. On Friday, December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi covered himself in flammable liquid and lit a match. His body was quickly engulfed in flames and, despite attempts to save his life, Bouazizi died on January 4th, 2011. He was 26 years old. Like how Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation in Saigon nearly 50 years earlier represented the frustration of many Vietnamese, Bouazizi's action became symbolic of a much larger frustration in Tunisian society.

What happened next, however, was a product of modern times: Word spread of Bouazizi's action through social networks, with Facebook specifically becoming a flashpoint for protest organizations across the country. By the time Tunisia's former leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, resigned and fled the country in mid-January 2011, over a fifth of Tunisia's population was on Facebook.


The term "social media activism" is ambiguous. That's intentional, as its application varies depending on what it's connected with. Both Occupy Wall Street and "#CancelColbert" fall under the umbrella of "social media activism," so the term needs to be ambiguous by its nature. With those two examples, you already kinda know what it is, right? Social media activism can be as simple as a trending topic ("#CancelColbert") for interested parties to engage in a bigger conversation, and as complex as Occupy Wall Street's multiplatform, multimedia initiative. As the name implies, there's no standard social network used for social media activism; YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Sina Weibo and myriad others are employed as need be.

In the case of Tunisia, Facebook was the social service of choice, with hackers, protesters and everyday Tunisians using the service collaboratively. It served as a message board for sharing images, video and stories, in addition to creating a public forum for communication.

In response to the Santa Barbara shootings by Elliot Rodger, activists and general newsreaders alike used the "YesAllWomen" hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag is still in use over a month later, where it's become an ongoing conversation about women's rights versus how women are treated in reality.


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Beyond the whole "you're a participating member of human society" thing, social media activism is a fascinating modern version of protest and communication. Because of the internet, social media platforms and the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras, activism and protest are now truly global events. Not interested in participating? That's fair!

The other side of the coin is that, sometimes, these movements affect your life whether you like it or not. If you were in Egypt in early 2011, whether you were part of the conversation or not didn't matter: The president was overthrown.


While not an "argument" per se, some say that media coverage focuses on the medium -- social media -- over the message, and it ends up diluting the protest. Author Malcolm Gladwell argues as much in The New Yorker: "People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the 1980s had a phone -- and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime." Gladwell's also questioned the efficacy of social media in organizing physical protest; it's easy for people to participate online, but far more difficult to turn those words into action (so the argument goes).

Back in May, a tweet from The Colbert Report's official Twitter account made a grave error: publishing a punch line from Colbert's show that night without including the joke's setup. In lampooning Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Colbert made the following punch line in reference to a (fake) video that proposed Colbert was caught making racist remarks about Asians. The tweet, since deleted, said this:

In response, writer/activist Suey Park created the "#CancelColbert" hashtag. It became a rallying cry for some Asian Americans to speak about their experiences with racism in America. Except that some Asian Americans -- notably Deadspin's Tommy Craggs and Kyle Wagner -- found Park's use of "hashtag activism" only served to misdirect the original conversation away from Snyder. It's not the first, but it's certainly the most prominent example of social media activism that many believe to be a misuse.


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We sure hope you do, because there's quite a bit on the subject that's worth reading. The MIT Technology Review has a great piece from John Pollock digging in on the hackers behind Tunisia's uprising. Al Jazeera America wrote about "#CancelColbert" and whether social media activism is effective; The New Yorker spoke with Park and discussed her background. The New York Times has a thorough background on Bouazizi and similar actions.

And finally, Jehane Noujaim's excellent 2013 documentary The Square both demonstrates the use of social media activism in a real-life revolution setting, and grippingly details the movement in Tahrir Square. It's on Netflix, even! Don't miss it!

[Image credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo (Zuccotti Park), The White House (Michelle Obama), Ferdinand Delacroix, Comedy Central, Twitter (@ColbertReport), AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo (Facebook/Twitter)]