On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was restrained and murdered by a police officer on suspicion of having used a counterfeit note. Not only Americans, but people all over the world stood against the brutality and racism of police. While thousands took to the streets to protest, people worldwide showed their support by using digital means as well. A wave of awareness of living racism spread throughout the internet using different social media platforms by spreading tweets, stories, and relevant posts. A powerful hashtag saying #BlackLivesMatter was alive on the Internet once again. Pew Research Center found that this hashtag was used around 47.8 million times on Twitter from May 26 to June 7, 2020. They also found that about 200,000 tweets used the hashtag the day after Floyd’s death when a video posted online went viral.
The rapid spread of tweets to show deep concern and spread awareness raises a question. Would so many people have known about this incident and expressed their support had it not been for the internet? This is where cyber activism comes into play. Cyber activism, also termed as Internet activism, Online activism, Digital activism, E-campaigning, or E-activism, uses information and communication technology (ICT) to support social and citizen movements. Cyber activism can take place in many forms- from using social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to share opinions and start a conversation, and to blogging about social issues. Among various attributes of cyberspace, it also enables people to take a stance against any social issue, spread awareness, educate and motivate others to share their views worldwide.
The origins of cyber activism in the United States could be traced back to the Zapatista movements in Mexico in the 1990s, one of the first movements to integrate “a network of communication among all our struggles”. To elaborate further on the movement, the Zapatista National Liberation Army in southern Mexico had thwarted a Mexican army offensive in part by waging an Internet war. In turn, inspiring people all over the world to send protested emails to the Mexican government. Since then, there have been many online movements, including #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo. The table below lists some of the online protests that have occurred years ago and are still debated, contested and talked about because of many reasons:
|#MeToo Movement||2006||It was initiated by Tarana Burke to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse and empathize with them. It became viral when Alyssa Milano, an actress, advocated for this in October 2017.||The tweet encouraged thousands of women to speak up and know that they were not alone. It also led to the termination of people in powerful positions.|
|Arab Spring||2010||It was a revolutionary uprising that swept Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, all of which are predominantly Muslim countries.||Impact varied in each country. In this region, societal progress has come seized after gaining some friction.|
|Free the Nipple||2012||Lina Esco, a filmmaker, started this campaign followed by a documentary in which she ran through the streets topless. It held that if men are allowed to display their nipples in public, why aren’t women.||It led to several celebrities like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus doing the same. A court case took place after which women were legally given the right to go topless just like men.|
|Black Lives Matter||2013||It began with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. According to Mr. Zimmerman, the unarmed black youngster appeared suspicious. There was fury when he was acquitted of murder, and a Facebook post titled “Black Lives Matter“ went viral.||The continuous movement has made sure that they are examining the police closely by protesting on the streets.|
|March for our Lives||MarchForOurLives was formed after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Students created this hashtag to campaign for gun regulation in the United States.||This hashtag sparked an entire movement, with over 800 protests around the United States, with the significant event taking place in Washington, D.C.|
Future of Cyber Activism
With the rising use of social media, one can say that cyber activism will be a considerable part of activism. It will help educating the masses, sharing stories, or organizing various protests on important issues. Also, from organizing rallies, debating issues, to mobilizing populations with similar agendas, and networking is what makes cyber activism so relevant even today. However, a question arises here. Does online activism have the potential to bring about a vivid change in society? Or is it just words and voices with low benefits and more demerits? For this purpose, pros and cons are discussed in the following:
Pros of Cyber Activism
There’s a list of the merits of online activism and are elaborated as:
Low-cost online actions do not detract from activist goals. On the contrary, they help to raise activist issues and concerns to the degree of public awareness required to implement or prevent change. Previously, broadcasting a message was expensive, so only large groups could afford to run large campaigns and mobilize many people. It is a lot easier now because of the internet, especially social media.
- Better reach
The most significant pro of cyber activism is that it has better reach. With a click, you can reach out to thousands of people across the globe with similar opinions. You can share your views with certain hash tags, and anyone miles away can agree or disagree with you. Through social media, networks can be formed, and actions can take place. Not only this, when you share a story or talk about a social cause, someone in your network might be more aware of it and ready to take a step to stand with you. This can act as a domino effect and influence millions of people. It can give a sense of collective identity.
Online activism can also lead to offline activism. There are often people who initially click and share posts on social media. However, it might so happen that they read more about the issue, eventually becoming activists for that social cause. Small online acts can pave the way for more extensive, more expensive, and burdensome offline actions.
When thousands of people post about the exact cause, it might trigger third parties that have the power to bring about an act of change. These third parties can include news outlets, celebrities, politicians, and others to achieve the shared goal. As mentioned earlier, it was actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet that made the #MeToo movement viral.
- Convenient organizing
A major advantage of cyber activism is that it can make organizing protests convenient and does not require the protestors to meet physically. Communicating with other protestors through the internet during a hostile climate has been a boon for activists. Individuals can work alone to gather people with the same goals. The Research work of Max Boykoff looks at how the internet affects the coordination of solely online protest actions, such as how online communication can help organizers worldwide coordinate.
- Interactivity and access
Newspapers, radios, and televisions provide people with the news; however, they are one-way broadcast media. While social media provides us with an opportunity to voice our opinions, know about others, educate others and ourselves. It can also be used to call out the perpetrators, holding them accountable. Discussing various views of a social cause can also spark interest in people leading to them knowing more about it. The internet allows those who would otherwise be excluded from the internet’s activities owing to unacceptability or a lack of access possibilities to participate more fully. As a result, the internet reduces barriers to participation for minors, allowing movements to be altered by the flood of new members. Furthermore, it can provide a space for minorities to be heard when otherwise, they are suppressed.
Cons of Cyber Activism
Having discussed the pros of online activism, it is vital to discuss how it can be harmful. Firstly, the internet space is extensive, which also brings about unwanted features. Websites, blogs, and social media can spread information that has not been well researched and is biased. Thus, leading towards misinformation that can cause real damage. However, it is also not necessary that online activism will always have an impact offline. There are so many people who put up, like, and share posts because of the hype that is created around an issue and surprisingly might not even know the whole story behind that issue. In this regard, a study conducted by Pew Research Center estimated that 64% of adults consider the misinformed information on the net causes confusion while 23% admitted to having shared fake news intentionally or unintentionally.
Lastly, we can only take advantage of what internet activism has to offer and try to be more aware of its issues. Researching and educating ourselves is one way to not fall for fabricated information. It is crucial to remember that the use of technology in innovative and novel ways can change society, and not the technology itself. While it is necessary to appreciate the advantages cyber activism offers, it is equally essential to be aware of its issues and deal with them. One of the most prominent issues faced by cyber activists is misinformation. As mentioned earlier, it can confuse and lead the social cause astray. Companies associated with technology should work towards a way to detect fake news, monitor social media in some way, and work on online accountability. Individuals should also take it upon themselves to read up on the social cause they share posts about so that the chain of false news could break and actual causes should get considerable attention. Apart from dealing with misinformation, online activism can also be made better by structuring the process so that individuals invested in particular social causes can be more involved and stay in contact with like-minded people. It is on us as a society to make the best use of the internet and not fall prey to its faults.
Niharika Agarwal is a student of Psychology and working towards removing the stigma around mental health. She is currently interning at the Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, USA.