The Power of Social Media in Activism

In quarantine we have learned to do everything online from our shopping to our social chats to our studying. Now, we are learning to use the internet for activism.

On May 25th 2020, the horrific and graphic footage of George Floyd’s murder circulated the internet, reaching millions and angering entire nations at the injustice of police brutality towards the black community. His death was seen all over social media and touched people’s hearts, motivating mass protests that began in countries all over the world and lasted for weeks at a time. It forced businesses and celebrities to release public statements of solidarity. It led to conversations beginning between entire communities who were once enemies and it led to the softening of hardened hearts around the world as people were forced to reflect on the importance of talking about race and their attitude to racism. All from one video.

The identity of the person who posted it and the question of whether they were an influencer or had less than 10 followers is irrelevant because what stuck in our minds and stayed in our hearts was the video that was posted. That is the power that social media has in activism.

Social media is slowly becoming a more and more effective tool for change and millions of internet users plug their feeds everyday full of posts raising awareness about important issues and how others can help. #slowfashion has become a trend, BLM petitions are linked in people’s Instagram bios and art featuring political slogans such as “F*ck the Tories” have become mainstream. But there is a huge misconception that this power to enact change lies in the hands of those with thousands of followers or more. I am evidence that this is completely wrong.

Recently, at my university, an incident occurred and the response from staff was one which many students felt was unacceptable. The specific details of this incident and who was involved are not appropriate to discuss in this scenario without consent, and it’s more important to discuss how people were made aware of the incident through social media. At first, I made one single post on my page entitled: “A Royal Holloway student is racially abusing black women online and RHUL are doing nothing about it. Why?”.

At the time, I had just over 1000 followers and each of my posts got an average of 70 likes, so I didn't expect this message to get far and just wanted to do what I could as many students at the university were trying to raise awareness and I wanted to help. Within hours of posting, however, the post quickly gained much attention from Royal Holloway students who began resharing, causing their followers to see it and repost which started a chain of events. That night, the post had about 500 likes and I was shocked.

Some more time passed and the post gained 5, 000 likes (I was even more shocked!). By the end of the next day, before it was deleted, the post had received 13,100 likes, 819 comments, 6,108 shares and it had reached over 94,000 accounts on Instagram. The post was liked by RHUL and London university students, parents of sixth formers who were now reconsidering if RHUL was for them, influencers, witchcraft pages, ANTIFA pages, black charities, news reporters, singers, American college students, blog writers and more. Comments came and conversations started from young BAME university students, elderly white parents and everyone in between.

I wrote a template email for people to use to send to university staff and all of these different communities who may have never even communicated before came together beautifully to achieve this singular goal. After this, people began making their own posts and the sharing of one piece of text started a movement of solidarity. Because of all the shares and attention, the university was eventually pressured into releasing a statement acknowledging the problem and assuring others that disciplinary procedures would be followed. I repeat: in less than two days, a university was pressured into disciplinary action by a bunch of teenagers using their phones.

The end goal still hasn’t been reached, but the first victory was getting the university to admit to a problem they wanted to hide. This part of the story is not in any way to gloat or claim personal success but rather to show you just how much power we as social media users hold at our fingertips to influence change, and how easily this could be your story too.

But how did all this happen? Personally, I don’t believe that a large following is needed to make this impact. If a person with 10k followers uploaded evidence of the incident with a caption expressing outrage, I don’t think it would have had the same impact. So here’s a breakdown analysis of exactly how I got my particular post to spread to widely:

Analysing the post itself.

  • The background is colourful to get your attention and your focused is placed entirely on the words in front you without image distractions.

  • The text is written in ‘clickbait’ format to engage viewers and encourage them to click on the post to find out more.

  • The use of the short sentence that provides an accurate summary the whole incident means that you know exactly what is going on and your naturally short attention span isn’t exhausted by reading it.

  • The use of the word ‘why?’ at the end is also important - it leads your mind to find answers to this question for yourself before you’ve even opened the post. It causes you to question the behaviours of the university. Why IS this really happening? And when you ask the question of why, you then begin to think about HOW the situation can be improved and WHAT people are doing about it.

  • The evidence of the incident was necessary to cause outrage - its one thing to say racism is happening but its another to see it happen.

The call to action.

  • One skill I’ve applied from experience in owning a business to this post is the importance of a call to action. For example, when you’re on a shop website, there will usually be a button on the homepage telling you to “Shop now” or “sign up here”. This is telling viewers exactly how to act and where they can find information they need. Without this direction, there’s risk of confusion as to what to do next. When customers are confused, they leave your website and don’t come back.

  • A situation like this was likely to cause mass anger and outrage so it was vital that I use my page not only to spread awareness but to guide viewers in exactly how to act after receiving this news. I wrote an email template for people to add their names to and send to the university. This forced people’s energy to go into a productive outlet instead of just getting angry and not knowing what to do.

  • Of course, there were some who attempted to initiate violence but I was constantly monitoring comments to remove those that weakened morale and to firmly assert my position on non-violence and solving issues by the book. Without this direction, i believe the reaction received could have been likened to a mob and sprung out of control with no productive impact.

Reaching out.

  • I spent a lot of my days DMing students, societies and influencers to repost this. If they were on Instagram, I messaged. I didn’t care who it was - situations of injustice are sometimes only resolved when there’s mass public outrage and to quote something I wrote in one of my Instagram captions “If it takes public outrage from an entire nation to stop racism, then we’ll get the nation”.

We often think we can’t have an impact in activism because of a low following. I like to think of activism as a 5-layered pyramid and I’ll use the example of homelessness to illustrate this:

  1. At the very top you have justice… a homeless community receiving housing or better healthcare or whatever your goal is.

  2. But that doesn’t happen without funding.

  3. Funding doesn’t happen without people coming together.

  4. People don’t come together without being made aware of the issue.

  5. No one is made aware of the issue without someone to spread that information and say why it needs attention.

The pyramid needs all of its layers to stand and you can fit in any one of those layers.

Social media is a powerful tool that we underestimate greatly. From one post, movements can start, behaviour can change and entire laws can be created. Do not ever underestimate the power you have to be the change you want you want to see. Do not let injustice creep away unheard. You have a voice and you should not be afraid to use it to its full potential to create positive change for yourself and others. True influencers are those who use their voices to uplift others, whether they have 2 followers or 2 million. So, I would like to end this by saying to you, how are you going to use your voice today?

General tips for effective social media activism

Do not use social issues to make profit.

An example of this is a jewellery company that came into business in the months following the end of American protests against police brutality. This company hit headlines when it used pieces of glass from the windows of smashed businesses to create jewellery and named its jewellery after victims of police brutality. An example of this is their infamous $240 Breonna Taylor necklace. This type of intended activism abused the publicity of the BLM movement and was an attempt to profit off the death of black victims for selfish monetary gain. Activism is not for profit and it should not be done to gain praise or money.

Do not make it about you.

If you are a white person posting about BLM, no one wants to read a speech about how you took a privilege test and went on a long journey to discovering that racism existed. That’s great for you, but it doesn’t help anyone else. In fact, it can be very offensive to black people that you only just realised racism existed when we’ve had to struggle with it for our whole lives. If you’re posting about a cause, keep anything you say ABOUT THE CAUSE.

Be honest.

If you’re a business owner promoting fair pay for workers and sustainable fashion, but your clothes are made in sweatshops by child labourers, people will call you out on your hypocrisy. You can still advocate for the cause, but its better to be honest and admit your faults with a promise (followed by action!) to improve your behaviour. Customers deserve honesty.

Don’t talk like a robot.

Most statements published in solidarity of a movement go something like this:

We at MadeUpBrand are committed to fighting injustice by posting this letter and nothing else… We recognise the issue at hand which we wont go into any detail about… and we recognise that change needs to be done although we won’t mention what that change is or who will bring it about… We are guilty of not being considerate enough although we won’t admit exactly HOW we are guilty… and we end this letter by encouraging you to ignore our mistakes and continue to give us money as if this never happened”

Recognise it? It sounds robotic and its clear that you’re just using a template. Admit your faults. Say EXACTLY what the issue is that you’re trying to fix. Say EXACTLY how you’re going to fix it. Spoken solidarity means nothing. Actions mean everything.

The overuse of slogans and hashtags within a speech also makes it sound like you’re just parroting something you’ve heard and know nothing about. Speak from the heart.

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