Social media: Is it enough to post about causes?

September 11, 2019 — by Harshini Velchamy and Tiffany Wang

Scrolling through their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds at the beginning of the summer, social media users noticed that many had replaced their usual profile pictures with a simple blue circle. 

The color blue was in honor of Mohamed Hashim Mattar, one of approximately 100 protesters who was shot by the Sudanese military in Khartoum, Sudan, on June 3 while peacefully demonstrating against paramilitary forces perpetrating violence for a democratic civilian government. 

The color blue quickly became a symbol of resistance for Sudanese protesters and a sign of solidarity among social media users,  who took it upon themselves to spread awareness of the crisis due to insufficient coverage by major news outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. 

 Within days, the hashtag #blueforsudan plastered the Instagram explore page, and major celebrities such as Demi Lovato and Kehlani voiced their support for the Sudanese protesters. 

  Social media activism has been a heavily disputed form of advocacy for many years: While some criticize it for producing short-lived movements that lead to “armchair activism”, others applaud the convenience and ease with which they can protest. The increasing popularity of digital activism makes this debate more relevant and necessary for society to learn about.

Senior Surbhi Bhat said she changed her profile picture to blue because she believed it was a good way to start a conversation and dive deep into an issue.

“Social media did create a widespread spotlight on the Sudan crisis,” she said. “For a lot of incidences, getting to hear the story of what is happening is super important to spark action.” 

She also brought up how Instagram users spread awareness about the recent Amazon fires even before mainstream media picked it up. 

“The Amazon was burning for 14 days while mainstream media said nothing about it,” she said. “I think it was really good that there was social media activism and you could actually hear people talking about it.”

Besides raising awareness, some question whether online activism actually translates into tangible change. In the past, movements such as the Civil Rights Movement took months or even years to plan, requiring the formation of community connections and resulting in long-term change. 

Now, however, social media allows for swift planning. This difference makes people wonder whether social media protests have the ability to produce significant change. While changing profile pictures or posting about an issue may spark discussion or raise awareness, some argue that simply sharing a post or retweeting a hashtag does not, in itself, lead to lasting change. 

English teacher Amy Keys said social media activism can sometimes be limited in impact since usually the people who see most users’ posts are usually friends with similar viewpoints.

“Social media posts can make people more complacent.” Keys said. “They feel like ‘Fine, I’ll just change my profile picture, but I don't have to actually read up on the details or understand what all the sides of the issue are.’” 

 She said that just posting about an issue can produce instant gratification that can distract people from donating to verifiable organizations.

In fact, many times, users are exploited when they engage with a cause.

For example, the Instagram account @sudanmealproject, which collected over 400,000 followers, promised to provide one meal to a child in Sudan for every story repost of the only post on their account. A few days after the account blew up, people started noticing that there was no organization or website linked to the account.

Sophomore Michelle Jiang was among the many fooled. She saw the account and reposted it. 

“I would trust the accounts because they would have so many likes,” Jiang said. “But a little while later someone posted how the account was fake so now I'm a little more aware.”

These fake accounts can divert the attention away from actually helping the issues, and instead put more focus on gaining a social media reputation. After @sudanmealproject blew up, countless others made accounts with similar usernames such as @sudanmealofficial, @sudan.meals.project, @sudanmealproject official, and @mealsforsudan.

Now Jiang is more wary about accounts that claim to do something good for a cause through reposts and likes. She plans to research organizations and causes directly to discover ways she can contribute instead of just posting about it on Instagram.

Even though Bhat posts about issues on social media, she also encourages people to donate to verified organizations or talk to representatives and lawmakers to produce more substantial change.

Keys also believes that social media can play a role in activism, but not a primary one. “Posting on social media shouldn't be an ending point, but it can be the start of the conversation,” Keys said.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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