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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: Political activism or Twitter slacktivism?

If you had told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that building social movements could be done in 140 characters or less, we doubt he would believe you. The power of social media, Twitter in particular, to fundamentally alter the political arena is almost mythical. 

Whether it be by live stream, tweet or meme, Twitter has bridged the gap between citizens and their government. Likewise, bridges between fellow citizens have also been built; political organizing has never been so easily accessible in human history. 

These innovations have led to massive social movements, like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, but are they as effective as the movement MLK built?

Americans have never been so tuned in to the latest political developments. In 2018, roughly half of Americans engaged with a political cause via social media. This engagement takes many forms, from using hashtags to changing profile pictures, but all of them are designed to spread awareness on a particular issue. 

Social media is used especially by Black and Hispanic communities to voice their traditionally-underrepresented political opinions. Thus, it is easy to see the benefit of social media for political activism. 

Political news is engaging more and more people, who now have platforms to find like-minded people and voice their opinions. 

At its peak, #BlackLivesMatter was used almost 1.4 million times in a single day. For context, that’s over 5 times as large as the crowd listening to Dr. King giving the “I Have a Dream” speech live. 

Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to the data. 

While #BlackLivesMatter took Twitter by storm in July 2016, the hashtag rapidly faded from widespread use. #MeToo exhibited similar spikes followed by a quick fade from the limelight. Though these hashtags bring important issues into the spotlight, it is unclear if the effect persists long enough. 

Worse still, it may make people think that they are making a difference, even if they actually aren’t. These movements are massive to be sure, but effective protesting requires endurance. Dr. King did not champion the civil rights movement by marching once. It took years of dedicated, person-to-person interaction to change hearts and minds.

The future of activism in America is unclear. Social movements have never been so large or diverse, but they’ve never been this diffuse either. It is undeniable that social media is unparalleled in its ability to bring previously disregarded issues into the spotlight. This can lead to real policy change. 

Yet, on the matter of organizing social movements, the power of an in-person protest is simply unbeatable. It follows, then, that the main utility of social media is not the hashtag, but the event page. Events like the annual Women’s March likely could not have been achieved on such a large scale without online organization. The end result was a massive protest for gender equality, an event that elected officials cannot ignore. 

So, next time a political cause riles you up, consider making a sign and going to a demonstration instead of tweeting a hashtag. America may be all the better for it.

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