Written by Emilia MacDonald – Edited by Julia Neves
In the 20th century, during a time of significant developments in communication, people from all around the world- regardless of physical boundaries – are more interconnected than ever before. We are in a true digital age. This interconnectedness means that more people are exposed to the brutality and injustices that others may be facing at any given moment. Because of this, social injustices and/or movements are quick to surface, but tend to lose momentum and relevancy to the media just as quickly.
But why do social media movements go viral? The most simple answer is that people are more interconnected than ever before. This allows for news of social injustices and social movements to be reached by the entire globe at an incredibly quick rate and low cost. The likelihood of something going viral on social media, is correlated with the intensity of the emotions being elicited. Through manipulation of strong positive emotions, such as compassion, social justice movements become more likely to go viral on social media. Examples of the emotional content utilized, includes posts that show suffering to elicit feelings of empathy, compassion, and outrage.
The most recognizable social movement on social media in recent years, which is often regarded as being highly successful, is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This movement was used to raise awareness and funds for those with the illness. Unfortunately, there was an inflated perception of success, as the public interest for this movement flared and waned quickly, as do many social movements that go viral. The consequence of this tendency is one-off donations, which is typically partnered with a lack of understanding about the issue at hand.
Of course, there are many factors that contribute to the growth of social movements. Often, when social movements have a presence on social media, hashtags and posts can bring important discussions to mainstream media – much like the case with the “Justice for George Floyd” hashtag. In addition, when social movements cover controversial matters, the use of social media can reframe situations from a criminal/legal stance, to one of social justice.
Unfortunately, users of social media are faced with an abundance of posts and new information each time that the app refreshes. Often, users may feel over-stimulated and hopeless, when they are faced with so many issues and movements every single moment of every single day. As a result, one can infer that this influx of information and inundation of exposure to social issues, may be the source of constant exhaustion and hopelessness for social media users.
Social platforms are designed to amplify popular posts and increase virality. But when important issues go viral, there is often a lack of education regarding the causes and history of the social justice issue. This leads to surface-level participation, without creating any lasting impact. It also minimizes the voices of those who are properly informed about these issues, for example, during the Black Lives Matter movement, public attention was redirected from Black activists to improperly informed sources like random social media posts that were created by those who are not personally affected by a social issue. The best example of this is the rise of #BlackoutTuesday, which took over Instagram on June 2nd, 2020. Even though there was an exceptional amount of participation in the use of this hashtag from both the public, as well as from corporations, this was a clear example of performative activism that lacked any substance.
Is there a way to utilize the incredible benefits of social media, while also leaving a lasting impact upon the world and those within it? For starters, there must be a clear goal of sustained success from these organized social movements. It has been noted that if a movement is framed around a recurring event, rather than the completion of a single act or behavior, then the public becomes more involved and passionate about the movement. Though short attention spans must be battled, it is incredibly important to recognize the benefits that the world of technology can offer to social justice movements.
Linden,Nature, S. van der. (n.d.). The Surprisingly Short Life of Viral Social Movements. Scientific American. Retrieved March 19, 2023, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-surprisingly-short-life-of-viral-social-movements/
Medzerian, D. (2022, December 8). Why movements go viral: Lessons from #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. USC News. https://news.usc.edu/204196/what-makes-a-movement-go-viral-social-media-social-justice-coalesce-under-justiceforgeorgefloyd/