It is said that the current age is one of mankind’s most peaceful eras. Yet, it can arguably also be called one of history’s most tumultuous times. While the world is not at open war, there are private wars being waged by those who desire change in the world, and make their desires clear by protesting. However, with the appearance of quarantine due to COVID-19, many protests where people show up in person to rally around a cause are simply no longer viable. This is where people have taken to online social media to protest instead.

Recent times have seen protests for many causes around the world. Whether is is the protests against the Chinese Communism Party in Hong Kong or the the protests against police behaviour over George Floyd’s death in the United States, most of these have been put on hold because of the governments cracking down harder from either escalating violence or pandemic quarantines. So now instead, would-be protesters have taken to the avenue of social media to express their beliefs and ideals. As noted by Heather Ford, “social media is now where people go to articulate and fight for their beliefs”. It is a perk, then that social media is in fact free, and people of all walks of life can express their ideas and principles with a somewhat equal voice online. This sort of activism has been labeled by some more critical onlookers as “slacktivism”, and it can be easy to see why. Instead of taking to the streets and marching and chanting with signs and billboards, all online social media activism requires are a few minutes of a person’s time and the ability to post their thoughts onto an online forum. It also allows them to keep up with the actions and posts of organisations that people follow, such as on Facebook, Instagram, and many other platforms.

An online presence has become “critical for staying engaged” both for the causes that people used to parade for, as well as for those who just want to keep an eye on things. Journalists and reporters also no longer need to attend a protest to get their scoops and stories. It is indeed more convenient. What is more, in countries such as Iran, protests are largely not tolerated by the government, and they have a history of coming down hard on organised protests, and at least in Iran, “protesters are being given the death penalty”. With such a huge risk to their lives, an overwhelming majority of the would-be protesters have also taken to social media to express themselves without a risk of being arrested and executed. Amnesty International estimates that in Iran’s most recent crackdown, three hundred people were killed due to protests. Just in this year alone, Iran’s protesters made “over 4.5 million tweets” about and against the government’s actions. This so called slacktivism is a more safe way to protest, because in places that have strictures like Iran does, it is possible to rally a great many people to a cause without risk of retribution from police or security forces.

Given that there are far more people willing to gather and speak about affairs online than those who would be willing to go to a public protest, it is clear that online protesting with social media is only just beginning to take off. Many causes have groups on Facebook and Twitter that anyone who feels strongly about them can post on, and with little personal risk. The only drawbacks to social media activism are that in order to participate, an internet connection is required, and that the government may decide to ban social media sites from the country completely, such as what has been done in the country of China. Requirements to having an internet connection is becoming less and less of a problem in this modern age, but having governments crack down on social media sites themselves can still be an issue that has yet to be solved. There are ways around a website ban, but most of them will not occur to the average citizen who may be uneducated in the ways of the world wide web. Should such an extreme counter-stroke from the government occur, is may be up chance what happens to such a location. Still, barring radical government action such as that, social media is still a thriving community and platform for protests and protesters to gather on, and as social media becomes more advanced and integrated into people’s lives, it may not be long before it becomes just as influential as a physical protest, if not perhaps more.

Listen to the full episode of Think: Digital Futures: Can a Hashtag Save a Life? here.

Thursday 15th of October, 2020

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