Digital Disruption

Going Viral - Trending as a Microcosm of Society

Digital Disruption

"If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access.” – Wael Ghonim

Throughout history technology has often been the catalyst for revolution and transformative social change. Within the digital age, society consists of dynamically moving and changing parts within the social and political realms, and the new online tools of communication technologies; including social media, have reinvented the way society engages with activism. As a result of macro platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the traditional relationship and interaction between political authority and widespread activism has been elevated, allowing society to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns in a way that has not been seen before.

Now in the twenty-first century, the virtual sphere holds a crucial role in society where the growth and expansion of the internet has facilitated a change in the spread of information to the extent that blogs and social networking sites have evolved into everyday communication media. They have played a pivotal role in social interactions by reinforcing communication patterns and interactions on a macro scale of society and bringing social movements to the forefront of common discourse. This can be demonstrated through the power of the hashtag in movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, the latter of which was used more than 30 million times on Twitter with 17,002 mentions per day on average. The widespread notoriety of this social movement is largely due to the development and presence of technological advancements over time which have embedded themselves within society. This highlights the role social media may play as a facilitator not only of individual activist participation, but also of collective activism. However, ironically, these modern values and advancements in activism today have evolved throughout time, being socially constructed amongst numerous societies and cultures, determining the accepted norms of all persons engaging in social activities. Due to the social and cultural value of activism changing over time, these social constructs have impeded the engagement, behaviours and decision-making, thus influencing the outcomes of social activism.

In a basic sense activism is action on behalf of a cause, action that goes beyond what is the conventional or routine. Yet, the very term 'social activism' is often misunderstood in society due to the changing values held by different generations and culture. Due to the many varieties of activism, there isn't a general definition that resonates amongst individuals on a macro level; so different people often have different ideas of what constitutes activism. When one speaks of social activism, many contending images are raised, this difference is commonly evident between persons of different generations such as Generation Z (born after 1995) and the Baby Boomers (1945-1960). For some, the use of a social movement hashtag or retweeting or reposting an activist's online post is an example of social activism. For others, the participation of large numbers of volunteers in humanitarian efforts is an indication of healthy social activism. Supported by a questionnaire, 80% chose retweeting a post to be most effective to raise awareness whereas the 20% chose either word of mouth or handing out flyers on the street. Majority of the 80% where of ages 16 – 18, where the 20% were completely complied of individuals of Generation Z, thus presenting a dramatic change between generations. This change in the social construction has impacted the social and cultural value of social activism that society holds as seen in the different views of the generations.

Nevertheless, one thing that has remained throughout time is the purpose of activism. In Harvey’s terms The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”. The right to exercise freedom continues to be of common discourse regardless of the changing tools and methods to create social change. The globalisation movement of the late 1990s gave rise to a grassroots phenomenon which subsequently paved the way for contemporary social activism. With a grassroots movement facilitated through the context of broader social, political or economic activity, it is driven by the constituents of a community rather than being orchestrated by traditional power structures and authority. The grassroots approach to political participation embraces social modernisation, taking social activism to a transboundary global environment.

However, before social media was socially deemed as the new ground for political and social activism, movements had a less rapid and dramatic growth before the rise of the internet. A year of organising and directly advocating for change led to the 13-month-long Montgomery bus boycott that began with Rosa Parks' act of resistance. By contrast to social movements in the 21'st century, traditional activist methods had changed driven by technological advancements meaning for rapid formation and connectivity. A contemporary example of this is The Gezi Park protests in Turkey, growing from nothing to a massive movement within days, demonstrating the power of organising using digital tools. Although the positive change in modern social activism, some argue the negative effect this has on the values society now holds. In an interview conducted, one interviewee discussed the impediment technology has on activism, saying “although the internet has made it easier to create and spread awareness quicker, most movements now lack resilience, lose focus and direction, and a potential to effect change.” In conjunction with the secondary research, Professor Zeynep Tufekci reinforces this notion, she wrote, “with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected… The ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organising capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.” Thus reinforcing the primary research, it implies that the value society places on technology to use in modern social activism isn’t the revolutionary tool that society makes it out to be. A statistical analysis reveals that 70% of civil resistance campaigns succeeded during the 1990s, where only 30% have succeeded since 2010. These findings present that society values the use and dependence on technology to create social change yet has been less influential compared to the traditional methods of activism.

Social Activist, Franchesca Ramsey states that “the internet has become this kind of meeting place where we can exchange ideas, where we can learn from each other, where we can get inspired about new ways that we can make changes within our own communities and own homes. It’s a really exciting time for all activists.” This was supported during a focus group conducted with individuals of ages 16 – 18, whilst majority discussed the benefits of technology, one interviewee stated the use of social media in activism “can be positive if used properly, but there's too much reliability on social media to the point where they take away the action of social activism due to too much focus on media and raising awareness”. The interviewee discusses on the value society places on social media as a tool for social change, emphasising on a greater possibility for misuse and misunderstanding. Although describing the benefits technology has for activism, it also determines the dependence of technology that remains a persistent societal norm which, in Malcolm Gladwell’s words, “where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” These findings demonstrate the attitudes and values towards the use of technologies in social activism; one which emphasises on social media and raising awareness over action.

Social Constructionism explains that social media platforms are social constructs, implying that they only have meaning because society gives them a meaning. However, it is argued whether a social construct can have dominance over a society. Through secondary research, it is apparent that society has created this social media industry, which has in turn become an entity in its own right. Its ability to adapt and change with the times, yet continue to serve the same purpose, shows that it holds power in society, as an entity separate from the society that made it. Therefore, it is able to influence society without society instigating that action, and as such it is possible that society can be a reflection of the way media perpetuates activism. Alice Workman stated that Triple J uses social media to engage with the audience, a view which is supported by my interview with anonymous media and communications coordinator , who stated that in their profession social media is used as a “hook.” However the “hook” sometimes draws people’s attentions away from the more serious stories. The Huffington Post did an analysis of their biggest Facebook stories in January 2015 and the results in Figure 1 (below) feature no top news stories from mainstream media.

Figure 1

The analysis of Figure 1 reveals the anticipated trends of social media users, where it was discovered that social media platforms employ more catchy and appealing headline articles as the general public seem to gratify towards these entertaining stories rather than the serious. This supports the views of Ross Gittin on the way media perpetuates activism, stating “it’s the media that are overly preoccupied with and impressed by the new rather than the old, by the flashy and the emotionally gratifying, by what’s on the surface rather than what’s underneath.” Hence, the use of social media on activism is indicative of the attitudes and values society places on these technological advancements. This infers that social media as a separate entity from society has influenced the process and outcomes of activism. Like any social construct, social media holds power in society in which it determines the societal norms of all persons engaging in activism; giving rise to virtual activism where social media places a greater emphasis to increases awareness to an issue, and thus may contribute to social change.

social media
Lawrence Roqueza
Lawrence Roqueza
Read next: Wearables vs The Virus | João Bocas | Engati Engage
Lawrence Roqueza



See all posts by Lawrence Roqueza