It’s easy to think that social media is a force for negativity—that it’s bad for our mental health to be constantly exposed to a stream of news and avenues for comparing ourselves to others. But social media can also be a platform for creating and sustaining positive social change, and it’s something that we can all be a part of.
Hashtag movements like #MeToo, which was started by activist Tarana Burke and later amplified online, have lasting consequences. RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) reported a 21 percent increase in calls to anti-sexual assault helplines after Harvey Weinstein allegations and #MeToo exploded, showing that online conversations can persuade people to seek help offline.
The 2014 hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks launched a nonprofit of the same name that now offers internship grants, mentorships, awards for authors and booksellers, and an app called OurStory that helps connect people with vetted diverse books. And Marley Dias’s #1000BlackGirlBooks has helped continue that conversation while proving that young people can become activists and create change.
These are only a few examples of how movements like #BlackLivesMatter use social media alongside grassroots organizing as a catalyst for activism. It’s worth noting that many current policy changes—like the recent repealing of net neutrality—are particularly tough on marginalized people who rely heavily on the Internet for agency, education, and activism.
One of my earliest experiences with activism was when I started using an LGBTQIA+ youth forum in middle school to spread information about safe and consensual sex with our international online community, and later became a moderator for the group.
If you’re interested in using social media as an agent for positive change but you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips that may help:
1. Take advantage of interactive activism opportunities in online communities.
Research shows that people are more likely to participate in causes with social or interactive aspects that have a personal feel. This was what helped the ALS Association Ice Bucket Challenge go viral.
If your friends and family see you posting about a cause—whether it’s a call for donations or a simple action they can take—they’ll be more likely to participate because you’re a part of their personal social network. It also helps if it’s interactive in some way like the Ice Bucket Challenge was.
Last year, a friend of mine organized a call-to-action for people to write to representatives about the Affordable Care Act. She used social media to get the word out and designated a specific date for people to do it. She then invited local folks to her home to write out postcards for mailing and encouraged people to join in virtually via social media if they weren’t able to attend.
Many people might be informed about causes like affordable health care or net neutrality, but they don’t know what they can do. Since social media is social and somewhat intimate by nature (depending on how many people you connect with), it’s a great platform to spread awareness and get other people excited about a cause.
2. Make sure your activism is accessible and inclusive
The best thing about social media activism is how accessible it can be. Actions like organizing, going door-to-door for a campaign, or showing up for an in-person protest can be expensive and dangerous—especially for people of color and other marginalized people. They can also be downright inaccessible for people with disabilities.
A successful campaign for change is accessible to everyone, like the creation of the Disability March website as an online counterpart for the Women’s March. It’s also tied to offline change; not everyone can physically attend a march, but everyone can voice their concerns about the political administration with the chance to be heard. There is more than one way to get involved, so it’s inclusive of a wide range of people. The Disability March website offers examples of how people can organize online as part of their activism.
The Women’s March was a great example of how social media helped organize an event, and disability activist Mia Ives-Rublee spearheaded the effort to make the event more accessible and inclusive to the disability community. Online efforts like Women’s March on Washington – Disability Caucus and #CripTheVote aim to sustain this momentum through finding accessible ways to get disabled people politically engaged.
No matter what your cause, there are ways to tie simple actions to real change—like encouraging people to take next steps to protect and restore net neutrality, or sharing information about how people can get registered to vote in an upcoming local election.
3. Remember that small steps are critical to getting the work done
Particularly with our constant access to information, it can be easy to lose sight of how small pieces of the puzzle are crucial to effecting larger, long-lasting change.
But small steps—like voting in local and state elections, calling your representatives, or creating a community group for political education—have a major impact. According to Harvard Business Review, easy-to-replicate, low-risk tactics are the most likely to succeed.
It’s powerful if you share with your community that you’re going to get registered and make voting in the next local election a group effort, and you all get together to achieve that goal. It might seem like a small action, but state and local elections matter—they often help decide things that will have an impact on your life and the lives of those in your community. And because local elections typically have lower voter turnouts, every vote counts.
Don’t discount local protests or smaller national protests because you’re not seeing the turnout that the Women’s March had. Get invested in grassroots organizing online: What issues are communities talking about? Is there a call-to-action that you can participate in? Especially if these are communities that are typically ignored in politics and the media, it’s time to listen and get involved.
4. Share the work that other activists are doing
If you’re feeling a little lost or defeated—or you just need some time for self-care—that’s okay, too. Remember that you can’t do everything, be a part of every cause, and commit to every possible social or political action.
Amplify the work that you see other activists doing, even if you can’t take part personally. Maybe there’s someone you know who’d love to donate to a fundraiser, or maybe you can connect with someone who needs help calling their Republican Congress member.
Whether it’s showing up for a local community workshop, volunteering for a nonprofit, or retweeting activism-related information to your online network, there are so many ways to use your social platform for good.
Sometimes I’ll see fantastic work that I know I can’t physically be a part of, like the Climate March in Washington, D.C., and I share the work of activists who were involved in organizing or attending. I know that I’m an individual person and as much as I contribute to causes that I care about, I can’t feasibly do everything, but what I can’t do, I can amplify.
There’s something positive and empowering about sharing our collective wins with the community, too. When you see an effort that’s affecting positive change—especially if it’s a cause that’s not often reported in mainstream media—share it with your social networks and friends. Tell them about some of the best activism victories you’ve witnessed or been a part of in 2017—you never know, it may just encourage someone to get involved.
Social media activism is great for so many reasons: It is more widely accessible, it gets conversations started, it sustains momentum, and it helps empower people who may have never thought of themselves as activists.
As a multiply marginalized person, I always wondered what I could actually do to create real change—to work on issues like disability rights, marginalized voices in the media and publishing, accessible health care, sexual assault and consent education, or LGBTQIA+ rights.
Through online communities, I’ve gained access to invaluable resources, like learning how to distribute safe sex and consent education on campus with Great American Condom Campaign, help get college students registered to vote with Rock the Vote or report on accessibility in public transit.
Some of my activism work is fully online while other aspects have an offline component. But, regardless, there’s one thread of connection: Every time I speak up and share about these issues on social media, people reach out to me. They let me know that they feel empowered to share their own story, or that they’ve connected with a nonprofit I recommended to donate or do volunteer work.
Together, we can sustain all this momentum and build the future we need.
Alaina Leary is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. She is a Bostonian currently studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. She’s a disabled, queer activist and is on the social media team at We Need Diverse Books. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her at her website or on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys. Read her articles here.