The Fight for Protesting

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Issue 14, Volume 112

By Elizabeth Kolbasko 

Many Stuyvesant students marched across the Brooklyn Bridge for the Global Climate Strike on Friday, March 25. The strike was centered around the message of “People Not Profit,” referring to the ignorance of large, wealthy corporations and governments all over the world toward climate issues. In the week leading up to the protest, the strike became increasingly popular across social media. Evidently, through all types of social media platforms, people can connect to local activism as well as global issues. However, this seemingly positive impact of social media comes with its own set of repercussions. For example, the success of many protests ends up being clouded by performative activism instead of true action.

Protests have shaped our country into what it is today. Many U.S. citizens pride themselves on exercising their freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Youth-based campaigns are some of the most influential activist groups for the public, and they push people in power to recognize demands from younger generations. These communities have built long-lasting relationships, promoted personal growth, and created endless opportunities. The main benefit of social media is that it spreads the word to prospective participants, but the advantages fall flat in terms of connecting the issue to the individual, which can be falsified through popular activist trends. Users can make their platforms tools for personal social gain instead of actually dedicating their time and effort to a campaign. When thousands of people share and repost a slew of random infographics, social media is promoting a “quick and easy” approach to activism. Harvard University human rights and international affairs professor Erica Chenoweth argued that popular movements on social media have degraded the actual experience of protesting, therefore affecting the result as well. These pushes for change aren’t made to last, so the increase in performative activism hurts demands for change in current protests.

Measuring the success of protests over time is difficult because different campaigns have different goals, and the extent to which the problem can be solved varies. However, Journal of Democracy found that the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance campaigns began to decline even before the pandemic, despite the massive wave of movements in 2019 pushing for racial justice, gun control, and LGBTQ+ rights. We’ve seen major restrictions on abortion in the past year in states like Texas, Idaho, and Mississippi. Recently, Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education Bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” Action against such legislation is overshadowed by changes in the structure and capabilities of these movements.

Not only does performative activism hurt a campaign’s success over time, but it also negatively affects the individuals who participate in it. Scrolling through and sharing aesthetically pleasing posts about protests will never equate to the impact of listening to speakers at a protest, nor will it actively demand change from those in power. Unfortunately, “clicktivism” does not show an individual’s nuanced beliefs on an issue, only a generalized summary of them. On social media, it is easy to follow the most popular movements without actually engaging in making a difference. Therefore, when campaigns do not earn trust and unity through time, effort, and relationships, they can fail under pressure. Digital activism can act as a lens for creating change, but more dedication to a cause in real life is required for it to succeed.

Rather than using social media as the main source for learning about all sorts of activism, social media should serve as an inspirational point for encouraging further research. In this way, younger people can explore their own opinions and thoughts without mindlessly reposting what they see on their friends’ Instagram stories. When someone is actually interested in a campaign, it can bring about great benefits for the individual and the common goal. The shift in culture should be centered around how activism is presented on social media. Right now, the condensation of important goals into a few infographics palpable for social media users is damaging. By connecting younger people with reliable sources and easy-to-understand information pertaining to activism, social media can be an effective tool for change. Driving these movements to focus on clear information and balancing promotion through social media will ensure that a push for change is successful.