Much has been made of the importance of social media with respect to its ability to shape public discourse and produce “real change.” To fairly evaluate such claims — and distinguish impactful social media campaigns from those that are mocked as mere couch-based “slacktivism” — we must first establish criteria for change that can be considered significant or meaningful, that is, “real.” For purposes of this essay, I’ll define change induced by social media campaigns as being meaningful when it results in (a) broad shifts in public consciousness, awareness, or attention, or (b) a government response that shifts official positions or the dedication of resources.
First, we’ll examine the case of Oksana Makar, an 18-year old Ukrainian woman who was beaten and sexually abused by three men in a savage assault in March 2012. Following the assault, Makar was set alight by her attackers and left to die. She sustained burns over 55 percent of her body and suffered infections necessitating the amputation of her right arm and both feet. Following her rescue, Makar was able to name her attackers. Though all of them were subsequently arrested they were soon released because they had the fortune to be members of the privileged Ukrainian political elite.
If this incident had followed the arc typical of Ukrainian social politics, the story may have ended there. However, Makar’s mother had access to both a video recording device and an Internet connection. By filming her maimed daughter in a state of physical pain and incapacitation and posting the clip to YouTube, the tables turned. The video went viral not only in the Ukraine but in Europe and other parts of the world, garnering the kind of attention that no government—local or national—can afford to ignore. Following strident public protests, Makar’s attackers were re-arrested by local authorities and eventually imprisoned.
Oksana Makar died of her injuries three weeks following the attack. In the absence of the global distribution network that YouTube provided, it seems doubtful that Makar’s fate would have ever been known outside her immediate social circle or that her attackers would have ever faced justice. Social media was able to shine a bright spotlight on a crime that in an earlier time would have happened in a dark, unlit corner, never to be seen.
Next, let’s look at the phenomenon of “Kony 2012”, a 30-minute film produced by American director and activist Jason Russell profiling the crimes of Joseph Kony, leader of the African militia group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is alleged to be responsible for illegally pressing as many as 100,000 children into military service and the sex trade over the course of 14 years. Russell released the film online in a deliberate attempt to raise public awareness in the West and drive U.S. action in providing assistance to the Ugandan government to apprehend Kony.
Oprah tweeting #stopKONYIn terms of focusing public attention on Joseph Kony, Russell’s internet-ready campaign was wildly successful. The video was short, emotionally wrenching, easily shareable and aimed at an under-25 crowd. Indeed, officials within the U.S. State Department reported that they first became aware of the video through their children. “Kony 2012” garnered 83 million YouTube views within two weeks. The phenomenon of the video received widespread press coverage, and Twitter buzzed with tweets from celebrities with follower lists in the tens of thousands including entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, and Ryan Seacrest, all using the hashtag #StopKony.
Using “broad shifts in public consciousness” as a criterion for determining real-world impact, we can unequivocally say that Russell’s YouTube-based social media campaign created real change. Because of his video, people of the western world began talking about the crimes of a relatively obscure warlord in a remote part of the African continent and calling for his arrest. What’s less clear is how successful the campaign was in halting the continued crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The Ugandan government, who had been pursuing the LRA for years, had already secured military support from the United States in the form of deployed advisers months before “Kony 2012” ever debuted online. And despite rumors of serious illness and plans for surrender, Joseph Kony remains at large.
Black Lives Matter
The phrase “black lives matter” is now widely recognized as a civil rights movement slogan or the official name of an advocacy organization. Used to draw attention to instances of racial injustice, the origin of the phrase can be traced to 2012 when Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors began to use it as a Twitter hashtag in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, accused killer of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. It gained much wider recognition following the 2014 arrest-related deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Gardner in Staten Island, New York.
“Black lives matter” has been chanted at public protest rallies nationwide. It has crossed the lips of U.S. presidents and those who aspire to be future presidents and was even crowned 2014 “word of the year” by the American Dialect Society. Its hashtag form continues to be used to label stories of racial injustice and the extrajudicial killings of African-Americans. It is the modern cry of what some have labeled a new American civil rights movement. This phrase has been used to gather disparate online content published on multiple platforms into a body of evidence expressed in words, images, and video — an indictment of the American social system as experienced by African-Americans.
On our first criterion of raising consciousness of a social ill, “#blacklivesmatter” has been objectively successful. As for the second — initiating a government response that shifts official positions — the evidence is less clear cut but a case for success can still be made. High profile incidents of racial conflict between police and African-Americans have resulted in promises to change policing practices (such as requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras), and it’s not unreasonable to draw a straight line between these changes and the original appearance of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and subsequent social media evidence of widespread unequal treatment. The hashtag turned rallying cry has been a motivating idea around which geographically dispersed people could successfully organize even in the absence of an identifiable central authority.
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