Social Media’s Impact on Society in a World Crisis: Essay

Social media has become an integral part of society and has dominated the lives of the world’s younger generation. This has given society a way to communicate ideas and share people’s views in such easy ways. It has allowed people to connect with one another in formats that would not have been possible in years past. People are now able to use sites like Facebook to chat with each other and even find old friends through this medium. They can even use pages on these sites to find and connect with people with similar interests. Men and women can now converse with each other no matter where they are.

Social activism has made use of this and has become more and more present on social media platforms. Social activism is the action of bringing about change to society and is focused less on specific issues but rather focuses on the root of them. It finds ways to create a stronger community and end injustice. These can be in the form of protests or social media movements that try to encourage a better economy, health system, etc. Social activism has flourished with the use of social media because it enables a cause to connect to millions of people in a matter of seconds. Many movements or groups have benefited from using these platforms and have created change to society in ways that would have been otherwise difficult to make.

Even with all the benefits, there are still some drawbacks. Social media has a way of communicating these ideas and views in negative ways too. Miscommunication and the distortion of ideas is very present when people use social media. Social media is often used in times of a crisis or with societal issues such as the ALS ice bucket challenge, the #OscarsSoWhite, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and many other situations. Each of these issues were heavily represented on social media platforms. This allowed people to become aware of the issue and give them an opportunity to help. Yet it has also, in some cases, allowed the problem to be overlooked. “‘Slacktivism’ is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation” (Albright, 4).  People begin to believe that likes and sharing are solving the issue when it actually is the opposite.

Social media can have massive benefits to a crisis by informing people to it or sharing it to everyone, but problems begin to arise when people are not sharing a way to solve the problem. Social media has positive effects when used correctly and negative impacts when used incorrectly in times of a world crisis. The positive aspects are that it spreads the word and brings people together, and the negative aspects are that it allows people to believe they helped when they haven’t and it creates an ignorance to the real problem.

The use of social media has become a way for people to spread the word about a crisis or a situation to get people to be informed and act. Whenever a crisis occurs, social media is often the first platform it is present upon when it is trying to spread information to the rest of the world. Social media platforms have access to most of the world and there are many times where groups, movements, or protests have taken form through these social media sites. In an article by Trevor Diehl, Brian E. Weeks, and Homero Gil De Zúñiga, they stated that, “Citizens are often influenced by messages filtered through the news media, the social context of their peer group, or both” (Diehl, Weeks, Zúñiga 2). When these messages are present on social media sites, people become aware of the problem, and then they come to act upon it. They become more subjected to it because it is present on a platform they are so familiar with and that influences them to do something.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) gathered significant influence through social media and news outlets. This movement was put on social media platforms, which allowed it to become more known and influential because of things like the hashtags for this movement, such as the #OccupyWallStreet. In an article by Deluca, Lawson, and Sun, they state that, “The invisibility of OWS on the pages of the nation’s major newspapers was repeated on the major television news corporations” (DeLuca, Lawson, Sun, 7). The OWS was not given much recognition or media attention in the first 10 days of its protests.  This was because it was not being covered well on news outlets and other forms of media. “Yet the demonstration, known as Occupy Wall Street, did not appear on the major networks’ evening news or in major newspapers the next day” (DeLuca, Lawson, Sun, 7). When it became known and shared on social media, especially the treatment of protesters by police, the OWS became widely supported on social media.

The OWS was greatly benefited by social media and probably would not have ever acquired the support it has now or made a difference in such a way without social media. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or even Tumblr have a way of spreading the word to millions of people almost instantly because it connects people. What the OWS needed was support in their protest and they were having trouble doing that because nobody knew about them. They needed the word to be spread about them to get the support they wanted and social media was the best way to do that. The OWS, and many other movements such as the ALS challenge, could spread the information about a situation that needed help through the platforms of social media.

In an article by Erin Lee, the effectiveness of social media activism is brought into question and he looks at the ways in which it has been. Lee discussed how a student thought that, “social media can amplify awareness of issues, which sometimes translates to more legitimate action. He cited the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as a social media campaign that raised a significant amount of money for a cause” (Lee, 1). Social medias ability to gain awareness for any cause is, without a doubt, very significant. The ALS ice bucket challenge found great support from people on social media and ended up raising a lot of money.

One of the biggest issues that are brought up with the topic of social activism through social media is the fact that, in many cases, posts or likes that are said to be in aid of a crisis are not helping in any direct or substantial way. Using a hashtag, liking a post, or following a profile that represents or informs people about a social crisis is often seen as helping. Dann Albright said in his article that, “64% of surveyed Americans say that they’re more likely to volunteer, donate, or share information on a cause after liking or following a non-profit or charity. And 60% will continue to read content from that organization, implying that they stay engaged in at least some manner.” (Albright, 7). However, out of the number of people who actually liked and supported a cause on Facebook, only 0.24% had donated money. While this amounted to $100,000, the fact that only a fraction of a percent of the people, who claimed to be inclined to help, actually did and that is representative of how social media activism can be ineffective when it comes to liking and sharing.

This ineffectiveness is discussed further in an article by Kianpour, Adlipour, and Ahmadi. They discuss how the younger generations have somewhat of an inability to separate reality from the “virtual” which leads to the façade of helping with posts or likes. The problem becomes more artificial and less apparent to people when they are only seeing it through the platform of social media sites. The reality becomes more distant when it is only present through the internet. In their article, they also stated that, “Such situation creates new horizons for individuals which could be totally invisible in the real world or do not have any material existence.” (Kianpour, Adlipour, Ahmadi, 1). Their statement points out the fact that social media is a way to inform people of a problem which would otherwise be very difficult to do in a world without it. It is true that social media is the best way to make an issue known to the public. However, they go on to talk about how this also creates an idea that liking and sharing is helping a situation or an issue. While people are informed of an issue, not many of them are helping, or even aware of a way to help, with certain issues on social media.

In a study conducted by Cone Com, they researched the relationships between people being informed on social media with the people that actually helped. In their study, they found that, “(64%) of Americans say they are more inclined to support social and environmental issues in a variety of ways – including volunteering, donating and sharing information – after first “liking” or “following” an organization online.” (Cone Com, 7). While 64% isn’t a great percentage, that still represents a number that goes into the millions. However, only 60% of those people were found to continue to be engaged in the content and the organization. Now, the number of people has almost been cut in half. This is similar to Dann Albrights statistics, where only a fraction of the people actually helped. This study shows that liking only equals helping if the person continues to help afterwards, which isn’t directly related in all cases.

Only a small amount of the informed helped because the people believed that the only thing that needs to done to help is to like something or follow a page. The concept of donating or volunteering is being hindered because of this virtual presence. Of the people who want to help, “Nearly one-third would prefer to give their money directly to an individual in need (18%)” (Cone Com,8). In some cases, for people, the virtual world is getting in the way of their ability to donate because it is something they are not willing to put their money through. While social media is informing many people about the problem, which helps in some cases, there is no information on how to help solve the issue. An encouragement or even a push for people to donate a little money is not always present in their posts. They are not demanding people to donate, send food, protest, or volunteer. They simply are making people aware of the problem which is only half the battle.

Social media has become an outlet where groups of people, with similar interests, can find each other and band together. “A number of previous studies have confirmed the phenomenon of ‘cyberbalkanization,’ in which political blogs tend to link overwhelmingly to other blogs of the same political persuasion” (DeLuca, Lawson, Sun, 10). This “cyberbalkanization” is basically talking about how people are brought together through social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, or other sites. These sites have created circumstances where people can easily access pages or groups that are full of people with the same interests. “Intimate and friendly contacts with the diversified others who share a sense of mutual commitment in the relationship, trust in others while taking into consideration potential dangers and challenges” (Kianpour, Adlipour, Ahmadi, 2). Groups can be formed that make a difference such as protest groups or movements that inform others of a problem like the OWS which gathered many of its supporters on social media sites.

People find each other through social media by searching similar types of media that others are interested in and begin to connect with each other through that. In an article by Joon Soo Lim and Guy J. Golan, they said that there are, “Relationships between certain types of media content and certain types of people” (Lim, Golan, 5). There is a correlation with groups of people and media content. People who are interested in certain ideas or topics are connected to others through their shared interests. A more specific example of this is the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which has a lot of foundations in social media. In Lee’s article, he also discussed how April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and how she was able to create change with it. Lee stated that, “Mainstream media picked up the hashtag, and some celebrities announced they would boycott the Oscars in protest. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences eventually said it would make significant changes to its voting requirements and governing structure to work towards increasing the diversity of its membership” (Lee, 1). Through social media, people who were interested in the same types of media content connected with others who were also interested in similar types of content. Together, they were able to influence the academy to make changes that could make the Oscars more diverse.

Social activism, in all situations, seems to now have a lot of foundation in social media platforms as well. As seen in the form of hashtags, posts, videos, etc., people respond and try to help in times of a world crisis through social media. “The hashtag then, becomes a symbol that allows people to gather behind it instead of simply throwing their opinions out there” (Albright, 4). By using social media in the form of hashtags, or other types of sharing methods, it creates a movement that people who want to help can join together through. “These seek to unite people around the world and, often, to show a united front against a perceived common enemy.”, (Albright 3). This movement which was created often points out what the issue is and allows people to express their opinion towards it in a more direct way. People with the same opinions group together with their common interests and confront the problems of that crisis. Social media can be a facet that groups similarly interested people in times of a crisis.

A more extreme example is when a crisis in the Ukraine occurred. Fighting began in eastern Ukraine and families became separated and panic ensued. The people within the small towns where it was occurring began to communicate through social media. “Cities on both side of the front have active social-media community groups.” (Sonne 3). They began to help each other on social media and shared where bombings occurred or how each other’s loved ones were doing. Sonne stated that, “Residents often sign on to the groups to compare notes on where the shells are falling. They share accounts of the explosions that are keeping them up at night or pictures of the damage” (Sonne, 3). This brought the people of that town close together and it united them by helping each other in a time of crisis. They worked together to support each other and find a way through the fighting that was going on. This is something that never would have been able to be done without social media.

Despite there being moments of success, the issue that begins to arise from the use of social media is an ignorance to the true issue at hand. “(52%) use social media to discuss issues they care about and they believe their online voice makes a meaningful difference” (Cone Com, 4). The problem of liking and sharing’s inability to help gather support in certain times is not the only problem. People begin to believe that it is helping and a real solution to the problem is not being spread. The spread of misinformation is what can happen with the use of social media.

Hashtags are one of the biggest forms of social media activism because it can display an issue or topic that someone supports in an easy way, such as someone using the #OscarsSoWhite or the #OccupyWallStreet. Albright quoted Evgeny Morozov, “‘Slacktivism’ is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation,” and she went on to say, “That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance”. The fact is that people think that simply sharing their views on issues or spreading hashtags that represent a social issue is a way of getting the problem solved by getting the people to think. The problem is that people are not aware of what can be done to fix these issues by simply becoming aware of the situation at hand

While there are instances of a hashtags effectiveness, as seen in the previous paragraphs, there is still a considerable amount of instances where it has not been effective. “(52%) use social media to discuss issues they care about and they believe their online voice makes a meaningful difference” (Cone Com, 4). Discussion and awareness is good but a meaningful difference can only be found by taking action. Most of the people discussing issues are doing it through pages or sites where people who have the same views and stances as them are who they are discussing it with. This means that they are preaching to the choir. They are not even spreading the issue well enough to make a difference.

Sheila Peuchaud’s article about sexual harassment in Egypt, and how it has been addressed with social media, makes a few points. There are cases where social media has helped such as there being groups formed to help victims of sexual harassment or abuse. There were many cases where social media helped with the awareness of the issue. There was a video, “of a women in jeans and a blue bra, her black niqab pulled her over head, being dragged and beaten by members of the security forces became an icon of the sexual violence perpetrated against female protesters.” (Peuchaud, 5). While this video is disheartening and very graphic, it had represented the sexual violence that female protester were subjected to. Since then, Amnesty International has been documenting the increasing sexual violence that has been occurring there since then.

While, this is an example of social media’s accomplishments, Peuchaud talks about the negative aspects too. She discussed how social media has, “have also been derided as vehicles for ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’” (Peuchaud, 2). She talks about how people have too much faith in the system of social activism through social media and this starts to replace real life changes with likes and hashtags. “Social media activism runs the risk of replacing the hard, dangerous real word work of boycotts, protests and feet-on-the pavement organizing with virtual clicking, liking and sharing” (Peuchaud, 2). People are ignorant to what exactly the real problem is and how they can help fix it. This ends up becoming a “movement” that consists of follows and likes that have no real traction.

She goes on to quote an article by Shirky saying, “Social media activism is effective when it is used as a tool to coordinate real-world action rather than as a replacement for it”. The negative aspects of social media do not stem from there being an inherent problem with social media. The fact is that people who use social media as the only way to start a movement or display activism are the ones who are perpetuating this idea of “slacktivism”. When people do not try to encourage outside action, such as donations or voting, the issue becomes virtual and will be a post people just share sympathy for in the form of likes because they are not being called into action.

The OWS gathered support online through social media, but it’s actual effectiveness is dubious because all that was done was that people are aware of the movement. Some people do not even know what it is they are trying to accomplish but they just recognize the hashtag. The #OscarsSoWhite movement called upon people to demand for change and the academy to take steps towards have more equality and diversity in their future. This had success because the academy ended up changing its system to accommodate for that. When social media was used to connect to people and encourage them to change, results were made. When all social media was used for was sharing an issue, there is difficulty in finding results.

Social media activism is something that can be very effective. It can even change the world in ways that would have been almost impossible to do without it. The negatives that are seen by people when the topic of social media activism is brought up are coming from instances where people did not effectively use social media to their advantage. These positive and negative effects of social media are entirely circumstantial. Social activism through social media platforms is neither inherently bad or good. It depends upon the people to spread the right information and encourage positive, real-world change through social media. The system itself is not what is the problem, but rather it is the people in it who determine whether the problem gets solved or not.



Works Cited

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Amherst. “Social Activism.” Public Interest Careers. Amherst College, n.d. Web. Sept. 2016.

Cone Communications. “2014 Cone Communications Digital Activism Study.”RSS. Cone Communications LLC, 2014. Web. Oct. 2016.

DeLuca, K. M., Lawson, S. and Sun, Y. “Occupy Wall Street on the Public Screens of Social Media: The Many Framings of the Birth of a Protest Movement.” Communication, Culture & Critique. 2012. Oct 2016.

Diehl, Trevor, Brian E. Weeks, and Homero Gil De Zúñiga. “Political Persuasion on Social Media: Tracing Direct and Indirect Effects of News Use and Social Interaction.” ResearchGate. Sage, Nov. 2015. Web. Oct. 2016.

Lee, Erin. “How Effective Is Social Media Activism?” The Dartmouth. Dartmouth, 12 Feb. 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.

Lim, Joon Soo, and Guy J Golan. “Social Media Activism in Response to the Influence of Political Parody Videos on YouTube.” Communication Research. 2011. October 2016

Kianpour, Masoud, Samad Adlipour, and Hakime Malek Ahmadi. “Interaction In Facebook And Its Impact On Modern Identity Of The Youth In Isfahan.” Global Media Journal: Persian Edition. 2012. Oct. 2016.

Peuchaud, Sheila. “Social Media Activism and Egyptians’ Use of Social Media to Combat Sexual Violence: An HiAP Case Study.” Health Promotion International 2014. Oct. 2016.

Sonne, Paul. “World News: Embattled Ukrainians Seek Help Online — Civilians Caught in Crossfire of Latest Fighting Turn to Social Media for News of Loved Ones, Moral Support.” Wall Street. ProQuest. 2011. Oct. 2016 .