The purpose behind activism is to bring about political or social change for an array of causes.
Over the last 12 months, we have seen an uptake of such action, having been sparked by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd.
Many took to the streets across the world to fight for black lives to matter, and it was estimated that between 15 to 25 million people in the United States took part in such demonstrations.
However, online forms of activism were also very noticeable during such times, and some could argue these forms of activism were more central than the protests themselves. These forms of activism can be seen through the spreading of infographics on social media platforms. Since June 2020, more and more issues have come into the spotlight through such means. These issues include SARS in Nigeria, the LGBTQ+ community in Ghana, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The way we have seen these issues enter the public conscious has showcased a massive change in the way activism operates.
Before social media and even to the extent of technology, activism was very one dimensional. If you wanted to encourage political or social change before social media, this was generally through protests, strikes and stage ins. The most notable types of movements that used these methods were the Civil Rights Movement during the 50s and 60s, aiming to gain equal rights for Black Americans. Before that, we had the Suffragette movement using various ways to try and achieve the vote for women in the United Kingdom.
Decades later, we now live in a completely different time regarding the way activism operates. As social media has grown in its prominence, all aspects of our lives are becoming digitalised, and this includes our activism. Activism is no longer one dimensional, as there are now various new ways to promote change within a particular issue. Gil Scott-Heron, a musician and poet, said back in 1971 that “the revolution will not be televised”. But because we are seeing more and more activism becoming televised, potentially his words are being disproven. We are now witnessing camera footage at protests, online petitions gaining lots of signatures and infographics on social media, suggesting that potentially this “revolution” is being televised.
In doing so, it has made a significant impact on activism and the ideas surrounding it.
The question then becomes what is the effect of such a transition of activism?
Daneille Guthrie, Co-Founder of IN.Society, which advocates for racial equality and promotes activism within the United Kingdom, had this to say when asked about the use of infographics and how this has affected activism.
“Digital activism, particularly social media, played an important role in enabling people affected by societal, political and economic issues to create international awareness and even international response. Whilst digital activism is not a new form of activism, there was an international trend of infographics used during the pandemic to not only educate but present call-to-actions, which appeared to be quite impactful when done so responsibly. The thing is, activism will never stop where there is an issue affecting communities which requires attention and response. Digital media is a powerful tool today to connect globally and immediately. The growth in digital activism symbolises how activism can be done in various ways, especially as traditional protesting worldwide is under attack, including in the UK with the Policing Bill.”Daneille Guthrie, Co-Founder of IN.Society
Because of this transition to online means, anyone with a social media account can participate in political and social change, as there is zero cost of setting up a social media account. There is also no cost in creating infographics and creating posts about issues that the person may feel needs to be addressed. In that sense, one could argue we see this democratisation of activism where anyone can be an activist. It also changes the original purpose behind social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. These platforms were seen as apolitical spaces, but have now become politicised thanks to online activism. Some would argue that this is beneficial for those who want to advocate for change, but others would disagree. Critics could say that these social media platforms are not designed for such purposes, some going as far as to suggest that online platforms do not have the suitable functions to operate as a political platform.
There is also the danger that some forms of online activism like infographics can run the risk of oversimplifying complex issues. Last summer, when there was masses of information about racism and social inequality being shared, Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist, did a post about people behind these infographics oversimplifying complex ideas. She noted that doing so misses critical elements of information that people should be aware of when advocating for a particular issue. Not only that but there is a higher chance of such infographics spreading misinformation.
Jack Street, the co-director at the Demographica Network, an independent media outlet in the United Kingdom, suggested that “whilst infographics can be powerful and provide an accessible way for people to share information, it is crucial that organisations present information that is accurate and constructive.”
As much as there is debate around the use of infographics and any other forms of activism that is becoming used online, what is for sure is that we are in a new age of activism.
But we are left wondering if this type of activism addresses society’s political and social issues or if this kind of activism is just virtue signalling with limited impact.
As we enter this new age of activism, these kinds of questions are important to maintaining the integrity of not only activism, but the issues.