Protests do not only happen on the street. Today, many social movements on the ground are accompanied by movements online. Smartphones, the internet, and social media have created platforms for movements to organise, spread awareness, and fight back against mainstream media reporting. But there are downsides to this: visibility is a two-way street.
Here are five social movements that used social media to help them push for change.
- Black Lives Matter
Racism is still alive in the United States of America (US). In 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter surged on social media to bring attention to this.
On the ground, the movement has targeted racism through protest action. The movement is not centrally organised, instead consisting of different events, organisations, and individual actions. But they are all aimed at fighting discrimination against people of colour in the US, particularly police brutality, which is widespread.
Throughout the protests, social media has been used as a tool to spread awareness, mobilize, and fight against mainstream media accounts.
From taking and uploading videos of police brutality to starting public events or private threads, social media has multiple platforms for enlisting the socially conscious. As a result, there has been no need for a central institution.
But the use of social media has not been a panacea. Bijan Stephen from Wired says the movement has realized that having some institutional structures is important. Protesters are also harassed online and there is greater surveillance of protesters by authorities.
- Occupy Wall Street
Inequality is rife in the US and the world over. In 2011, thousands of people in the US and all over the world took a stand against the ‘1 %’: those living on the wealthiest side of the spectrum. The ‘99 %’ took to the streets in protest of inequality, greed, and corruption.
The hashtag #OccupyWallStreet quickly gained popularity. Around 450,000 Facebook users joined the Occupy Wall Street Facebook pages, and the hashtag gained traffic on Twitter. This movement also used social media to organise, gain awareness, and even crowdfund media projects around the movement.
But during the protests, the social media trends could be misleading. The number of people attending any event on social media rarely translated into bodies on the streets.
In a Huffington post article, Jeremy Heimans, co-founder and CEO of Purpose, says that social media is just a tool. It is people who use it creatively and purposefully to drive social movements. And while social media is important, Heiman says, the mainstream media also directs the spotlight at these movements and their message.
- Egypt’s Revolution
Revolution spreads. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 swept through the country and led to the resignation of the president, Hosni Mubarack. Protests, demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience and occupations dotted across all major cities of the country.
Many complex factors led to the protests. The youth made up a growing proportion of the population, and they started protesting against the ‘thirty years of violent repression and despotic rule’ that had marred the nation. Unemployment, corruption, and police brutality were also catalysts for the movement’s progression.
But Sam Gustin from the Wired says that social media significantly helped to spread and accelerate the movement.
Only a small portion of Egypt has access to the internet, but the number is increasing. According to Jose Antonia Vargas from The New York Times, it is mainly the young and educated class using social media — a group who were integral to the movement.
Ghonim, who is credited with starting the revolution, says the ability to connect with others inspired the idea that things could change.
- The Umbrella Revolution
The youth in Hong Kong took a stand against looming autocracy in 2014. The Hong Kong protests swept through the region as protestors challenged a proposed change to the electoral system, which would give Beijing the power to approve or disprove candidates for the Hong Kong chief executive. They wanted to protect the democratic features of their region.
Despite Beijing trying to crack down on social media in response to the protests, the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was given a global spotlight through the online activity of protesters. Chinese supporters of the protests found ways around censorship.
Images of crowds, sheltered with colourful arrays of umbrellas, made their way around social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The protesters used the umbrellas to ward off gas and the sun, but it became a symbolic force for the protests.
Protesters used subtle Whatsapp messages to organise and communicate with each other. They also used ‘Fire Chat’ which uses Bluetooth or cellphone radio instead of the internet, making it less detectable by authorities.
Encouragement from the global community through social media, the internet, and news reports encouraged protesters. They also used social media to bring attention to the police violence used against them. If violent repression happened, the world would know.
- Fees Must Fall
In 2015, South Africa’s rainbow nation broke. It had been broken, plagued by persisting inequality and social injustice since the end of Apartheid. But only when its broken shards swept through South African universities did it land in the middle class consciousness.
Across the country at 18 campuses, South African students demanded free, quality higher education in 2015 and 2016.
Fees Must Fall (FMF) not only spilt into the streets but it also erupted online. The hashtag #FeesMustFall became popular on Twitter, with users of all races and demographics joining in the conversation around the movement.
In a Memeburn article, Stuart Thomas speculates that without the power of social media, the protests probably would not have spread as they did. Social media was used to organise and spread messages.
But social media was also used to challenge the mainstream media’s coverage of the protest. Whenever a photo of a burned bus was shared and students were demonised, photos that humanised the protests and its struggle on the ground bounced back.
Social media was used to call for food and water supplies for protesters, and it was also used to crowdfund money for legal fees when students were arrested.