E-mpowered: Social media is transforming the nature of activism

Feb. 15, 2024

By Zahara Chowdhury

As she and other activists walked down the streets of Washington D.C. on Nov. 4, 2023, senior Rola Mustafa, who is of Palestinian descent, protested against the killing of Palestinians and called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War

Over 300,000 people participated in this march, making it the largest Palestine solidarity protest in U.S. history, according to the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. However, Mustafa said this protest would not have received as much attention without social media.

“Walking alongside those people sparked a feeling of hope for both myself and thousands of people who viewed the protest online,” Mustafa said.

Online activism is the use of digital communication to enable activist campaigns. Mustafa said it is vital in modern-day movements. 

“The simple shar[ing] of a video [can] spread knowledge. Online and physical activism go hand-in-hand, both of them aiding each other in the fight for our voices to be heard,” Mustafa said.

She said she posts helpful resources, like phone numbers of government representatives to call and demand a ceasefire, and reposts victims’ firsthand accounts to spread awareness.

“Social media is the place people go to for information,” Mustafa said. “I have seen entire waves of people join activism movements due to the education they’ve been receiving from online activism.”

She said online activism has gained popularity because of its convenience.

“For someone who is in a situation where protests are too far away, their phone allows for them to easily access the truth and resources to educate themselves,” Mustafa said.

She said social media posts created by prominent figures can be dangerous when they contain misinformation. Consequently, she said followers must learn to view the posts discerningly.

“Misinformation results in dangerous ignorance, and it requires comprehension to… understand what is being said,” Mustafa said. 

PHOTO BY ROLA MUSTAFA The National March on Washington: Free Palestine took place on Nov. 4, 2023, in which over 300,000 people participated. This marks the largest Palestine solidarity protest in U.S. history, according to the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Those who attended the march posted photos of the event on social media to raise awareness and encourage further activism.

Senior Rahma Heneiber said she uses charitable TikTok filters to show her support. TikToker Jourdan Johnson is a part of the app’s Effect Creator Rewards program, and she created ‘FILTER FOR GOOD I’ on Nov. 6, 2023. 

The filter is a tracing game that requires the user to drag a watermelon, an emblem of Palestinian solidarity and resistance, across a squiggly line to collect seeds. For each TikTok created with the filter, Johnson earned money that she donated to charities providing aid in Gaza. It reached the maximum reward per effect of $14,000 on Nov. 16, 2023, and users have applied the filter over 11 million times on TikTok. 

“I try to post information about causes that I believe deserve recognition and that I want my peers to know about. I have been very vocal about the situation[s] in Yemen and Palestine ever since I made a social media account,” Heneiber said.

In Yemen, a civil war broke out in 2014 between the Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement, a Shia Islamist political and military organization. Since then, the conflict has displaced about 4.5 million people.

Heneiber said it is unfortunate that platforms sometimes silence activists whose beliefs go against the platform’s biases.

“Influence from the government can also cause activists to be censored,” Heneiber said. 

She said activists are using social media to speak out against laws that exist in the majority of states that prevent large state contracts with companies that boycott, divest from or sanction Israel. She said activists also want to use social media to speak out against a bill that passed in the House of Representatives in December declaring anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism.

“Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have histories of flagging and sometimes banning certain activist accounts,” Heneiber said.

She said she learned about the forced labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through social media. Chinese-backed mining companies are forcing the Congolese to mine cobalt, making the DRC the world’s main source of this metal, which is a component in many electronics.

“The simple shar[ing] of a video [can] spread knowledge. Online and physical activism go hand-in-hand, both of them aiding each other in the fight for our voices to be heard.”

Heneiber said she has seen several posts on TikTok that advise viewers to stop unnecessarily buying new phones because most phones contain cobalt. Heneiber said she supports this boycott.

“I don’t like to buy the newest iPhone every year, so I am completely on board with not buying new electronics and instead using up the one I currently have,” Heneiber said.

Most e-cigarettes have a lithium-ion battery that includes cobalt. Due to the exploitation of the Congolese, some have vowed to quit vaping

Sophomore Isabella Bartlett said the boycott of e-cigarettes shows people are becoming less selfish by giving up their addictions to support those who are struggling.

“If there is less of a demand for vapes and other appliances that require cobalt, there is less of a need for the people of Congo to be exploited for the resources,” Bartlett said.

She said online movements are short-lived because of the fast-paced nature of the internet, and the movement must have an in-person component to be effective. However, she said people should not discredit online activism altogether.

In November 2022, the Supreme Court sought to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act, a bill that prevented Native American children from being taken from their families and displaced by the government outside of their tribes. On June 15, 2023, the Supreme Court upheld the ICWA.

“Many activists online campaigned for [the] ICWA to be upheld by getting their followers and viewers to sign petitions and email government officials,” Bartlett said. “Many political bills have been saved from being overturned because of activism online.”

Bartlett said performative activism, which is done to increase one’s social capital, is ineffective.

“Reposting one infographic regarding an issue just to show that you care is not enough,” Bartlett said. 

“When engaging in online activism, I find the most effective forms are donating to creditable campaigns, emailing local government representatives and signing petitions.”

History teacher Mr. Spence said he favors physical activism over online activism but recognizes the value of both.

“Anyone can sit behind a computer and type away and put stuff out there, but until you’re in the field or the trenches and you’re living your experience, the experience almost doesn’t feel complete,” Spence said. 

He said celebrities play a major role in activist movements because they influence their followers. 

“It’s very much hierarchical diffusion. Celebrities like something, promote something or say that they are behind something, and because they have this aura in society, other people want to follow,” Spence said. “We have to be careful to make sure that, as onlookers, we’re not just supporting a cause because a celebrity we like supports it but because it’s something we really believe in.”

Spence said students interested in activism should not be afraid to use their voices.

“I always say the road to greatness is paved with so many twists and turns. Go with the flow on those twists and turns because the end product is worth it,” said Spence.

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