5 Movements Where Social Media was a BIG Catalyst for Social Change

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By Ritu Sharma, CEO, Social Media for Nonprofits

2014 was a year of change. That might not sound like headline news (isn’t EVERY year full of changes?), but actually in this case it is – because a turning point was reached. One where we can no longer look at hashtag activism with disdain, rolling our eyes and calling it “slacktivism.” What 2014 brought into sharp focus, as social media movements drove news coverage, was the undeniable power of social media. And there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. I find trends and finding commonalities between different events powered by social media and advocacy very fascinating. It’s starting to be a year of big activism and social media fueled advocacy in 2015 and we continue to observe and monitor the trends in the #BlackLivesMatter and more to come as the year progresses.

Here’s a look at five social media movements from 2014, and the social change they inspired:

1. #YesAllWomen – Exposure for serious issues without a single ad dollar being spent

The May 23, 2014 shooting spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara left six dead and was the tragic tipping point for women tired of constant sexual harassment, violence, and misogyny, noting in People.com that: “Rodger’s attack, while horrific, is just one example of the violence women experience regularly.”

The #YesAllWomen movement shed light on the frequent incidents women – yes, ALL women – suffer, and if there was any silver lining to the Santa Barbara shooting, it was that finally we were talking about things we’d been ignoring for far too long – and actually being heard.

For nonprofits dedicated to women’s issues, it was a significant opportunity to spread awareness and join the discussion that was already happening. And with every social movement, that may be the greatest advantage on offer: free advertising for causes that share the same space. In our sector, that’s no small thing.

2. #Ferguson – Leaderless movements

2014 also proved that the way social movements operate is changing, as the focus in larger-than-life causes shifted to the causes themselves, versus those leading the fight.

Movements like #Ferguson took on a life of their own, with no clear leader at the helm, only a divided nation speaking out and choosing sides based on their own perspectives and opinions. As the movement grew  (and as others fueled by the same racially-charged outrage rose up in its wake), there was criticism by those considered leaders in their own right – like Oprah – that a more organized approach was needed, but the criticism hasn’t been well-received.

Whether there is a disconnect between leaders of an older generation or not – Oprah’s pre-Internet years outnumber those where hashtags were a “thing”– social activists certainly do have their own approach. And while it may seem that some of these movements are disorganized, one could argue that the reverse is true.

“In an era of hashtag activism, clicktivism, or whatever you want to call digital politics, it still takes some level of organization/s to create and sustain a movement, even an online movement.”  – Jen Schradie Institute for Advanced Study at the Toulouse School of Economics.

It’s not that these movements aren’t organized, they’re organized differently. And they ARE having an effect, even if it’s not quantifiable in the way their critics would like. In other words, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” as Bob Dylan once sang.

And these movements offer the opportunity for those who ARE organized to partake – to spread the message further, and to use the movement to further their own share of cause.

3. #IceBucketChallenge – Philanthropy is no longer a privilege of the elite

Speaking of causes that perfectly balanced organization against the social free-for-all… While the ALSA didn’t start the #IceBucketChallenge, what they DID very smartly do was JOIN it, taking responsibility for directing efforts and informing participants.

And what started out as a very silly-seeming, questionable, and much-criticized movement raised record-breaking funds for a single cause in a few short weeks.

But that’s still not the coolest thing about the #IceBucketChallenge (see what I did there?). What this social sensation really did was perfectly illustrate the democratization of philanthropy that social activism offers. Alongside the Bill Gateses and Charlie Sheens of the world were regular people, ready to pony up a hundred bucks (or whatever they could afford), either to avoid dumping ice water on their heads, or as a bonus to having just dumped ice water on their heads. Why? Because not only was it for a good cause, it was fun, and it was clearly WORKING.

Anyone who’d ever wished they could afford a thousand-dollar ticket to a fundraising-gala could suddenly afford to be the change they wished to see in the world because they knew that every little bit counted. The evidence was there via daily updates on the ALSA’s website.

4. #UmbrellaMovement – Social media defies borders and geography 

When Hong Kong students protesting for political autonomy were met by law enforcement officials with pepper spray they began carrying umbrellas to protect themselves. While the symbolic name may be simple, the movement is anything but. Older generations fear repercussions from the protests of the younger generation, who long for democracy.

But social activism is making the world a smaller place. Borders and geography mean nothing on the Internet, which is global. You don’t have to be in Hong Kong or Ferguson to lend your voice to the rallying cry and take a stand. There is safety in numbers, and it is much harder (if not impossible) to remain invisible on the social web.

Think of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack as another example. The hypocrisy of certain world leaders marching in solidarity of freedom of expression while some of their own citizens are being held for expressing themselves on other issues isn’t going unnoticed, and that’s exactly the point. PEN American Center, among others, is spreading awareness about these cases all over the world, and asking these leaders to recognize their double standards. And it’s working.

5. #IllRideWithYou – Solidarity

And perhaps that is the greatest benefit of social activism: the solidarity and strength of being part of a greater movement, facilitated and further fueled by social media. The ability to make underrepresented voices HEARD. To be able to say, “I’ve got your back” to anyone in the world, so they feel less alone.

This sensibility was demonstrated during December’s hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. When flags hung in the windows of the besieged café appeared to be Islamic, the Muslim hate started flowing.

The story of one Muslim woman removing her hijab on the train, fearing Muslim backlash in the wake of the attack, sparked a movement of solidarity that resulted in 150,000 tweets in four hours, as citizens of Sydney assured Muslims protection by claiming, “I’ll ride with you.”

If the past year has shown us nothing else, it’s affirmed that the connectedness technology offers us is powerful.  As our use of technology advances, everyone with a smartphone becomes a reporter, an activist – able to become a larger part of any movement that speaks to them at the push of a button.

Nonprofits, too, have power – to leverage technology and the movements set in motion by others. And perhaps we even have a responsibility to jump in and lead where we can, as the ALSA did, and as powerful figures less in touch with social media might need us to in order to jump on board themselves.

Though anyone less versed in social won’t stay that way for long. Technology will continue to push us to new heights, and more and more people will join the ranks as old methods and devices fade into obscurity.

“The times, they are a-changin’” indeed.

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