Youth Activism through Social Media
Written by Cherng Meng Lim (Associate of Campaigns and Outreach)
The Rise of Social Media Activism
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted social and civic involvement towards digital activism, especially among youths. From the US came the rise of racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter, where thousands of protestors took to the streets following various mobilisation efforts online. In China, students raised funds across social media for medical workers at the forefront of pandemic response. In Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Indonesia, civil rights movements are formed in protest of authoritarian leaders exploiting the health crisis to intensify their power under the pretence of fighting the pandemic — demonstrating the scope and reach of digital spaces in challenging traditional power structures and promoting civic engagement.
This is not dissimilar from the situation in Malaysia. The black flag movement, initiated by a loose coalition of 40 youth activist groups known as Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), sought to address the failing efforts of the government of the day to handle the pandemic. Under the hashtag #lawan (meaning ‘fight’ in Malay), pictures of black flags proliferated on social media as young citizens found themselves on the front lines of political activism at a time when the older generations were more vulnerable to the pandemic. Needless to say, organisations and social activists are increasingly interested in utilising digital media as a means to push their respective agendas. The youths, particularly, are becoming active participants in driving dialogues with policy-makers as they gradually take on the role of shaping our future.
To Speak and Be Heard
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the digitisation of civic engagement during the pandemic has provided youths with an outlet to express and develop their political identities that may not be afforded to them in traditional activism. The low entry barrier to digital technology has allowed young people to disseminate ideas that can reach large yet specific audiences they would not otherwise have access to. Such coverage often takes place in formats that are digestible to the population. For instance, many songs and dance challenges are paired with hashtagged anecdotes for awareness-raising during the pandemic, or the advent of ‘protest avatars’ using visual symbolic representations of movement support or membership (e.g. Pride month profile pictures). The youths have become versed in employing humour and memes to satirise popular culture for advocacy and political commentary. Though these may be dismissed as mere ‘clicktivism’ and unproductive civic acts, the universal appeal of comedy and creativity for impactful participatory action have come to be appreciated amidst the COVID-19 social isolation.
Youth movements are also engaging with digital activism for its invaluable movement-building abilities. Digital advocacy may involve taking initiatives at an individual level — such as promoting content via likes and shares, or creating websites for information dissemination — or as part of a collective whole that requires potential activists to contribute to a cause beyond their individual interests. Organisational movements like the Yellow Ribbon Project aim specifically to gain membership and momentum through awareness-raising campaigns. In other cases, individual campaigns have intensified into sustained movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, where the initial campaigns grew into wider social movements with dedicated websites, hashtags, and profiles that formed a collective identity. Studies further indicate that youths who engage in digital participatory activities are more likely to be involved in ‘real’ offline political practices like voting or protest. As the pandemic persists, we can expect more unprecedented civic activity from youths whose political and civic behaviour will be shaped by their online experiences.
Two Sides, Same Coin
Social media expands opportunities for youth political participation, but various forms of associated risks and dilemmas come with it. Youths may be subjected to online harassment that is only exacerbated by the COVID-19 social isolation and mass homeschooling. Social media also faces criticism for its high prevalence of misinformation to which younger children and adolescents are most susceptible. Fabio Rojas, a professor of Sociology at Indiana University, further questions the capacity for progressive youth movements to institute tangible change within a larger political framework. While social media has demonstrated its ability to facilitate organised mobilisation, it appears contentious as to whether student protests like March For Our Lives and Occupy Wall Street have achieved substantial change in the form of legislation. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, for instance, the lack of a figurehead has purportedly led to the failure to push for any policy mandates, making it one of the biggest disasters in organised protest. Without elements of a traditional organisation or partnering with well-established bodies, as #BlackLivesMatter did with the NAACP, youth movements may face difficulties translating their objectives into tangible differences. At its worst, digital spaces can even be abused to incite violence and propel harmful agendas. Social media has reinforced the capacity of civil rights movements across Southeast Asian countries to oppose authoritarian leadership. Yet, it remains an equivocal source of violence and intolerance against ethnic or religious minorities due to the spread of fake news.
These challenges cannot be dismissed if we were to strive for accessible and safe digital youth civic engagement. Despite its shortcomings, however, we should continue to support the younger generations and their participatory efforts. Social media has managed to capture the civic enthusiasm of the moment, and for all its limitations, digital activism remains indispensable for its ability to project and establish the political identities of the youths.
We at MSGA believe in the potential for adolescents and young people to make their voices known and project their ideals across the political landscape. The pandemic has spurred youths to engage with social media and make meaningful changes in their communities. Youths have become an integral part of the civic process — now more than ever.