Imagine starting from scratch, planning a revolution with pen and paper and the hum of impassioned voices. Now imagine an uprising, birthed from hashtags and viral content, reaching far more people at a much faster rate than that pen and paper ever could. This could get dangerous, or it could make impactful change. The paths of social advocacy and human rights education have drastically changed over the past 10 years. Humans no longer need to hold meetings for hours, writing down grievances and goals for the future. The future is in human hands, connecting people that will never meet in places they have never been. The impact of social media on social movements is relatively untapped, but has a growing area of scholarly literature. It is widely known that social media has changed human communication, styles and pathways, but why do humans seek mobility and agency through social media? When humans feel compelled to express their voices, how do they use social media to make an impact? When addressing these questions, the cases of the Taksim Square protests and the 2012 Invisible Children campaign serve as useful examples.
In 2013, Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, echoed with the sounds of violence and uprising. What began as a peaceful citizen-led protest quickly became a showcase of police aggression and tear gas. Initially, citizens and environmentalists gathered to protest an urban development plan that threatened Gezi Park. This small protest quickly became a nationwide movement fanned by the flames of the dismissive responses of authorities. During this sequence of events, social media played an integral role in the mobilization of advocates and the reporting of first-hand accounts. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms were utilized to connect people around the country as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the usage of social media and attempted to restrict it.
While authorities attempt to regulate social media, the people use it to inform one another. The polarizing nature of the mass sharing of information and opinion is a threat to the structural powers within authoritarianism that seek to control or eliminate civic conversation. It is realistic to consider why governments and regimes around the world are wary of discourse online. As for citizens, it can be argued that they relate through "vicarious experience, cognitive involvement, and personal agency via empowerment and autonomy" (B.G. Smith et 2015). Vicarious experience refers to human beings observing one another and feeling the emotions and experiences of others. Social media platforms enable people to view another person’s life through a digital window. According to personal experiences, they can relate or reject the opinions and experiences of others based on what they observe online. Vicarious experience drives people to act and form their own platforms online, often in solidarity with others or certain movements that appeal to their worldviews and general emotions. Once a connection is established via vicarious experience, social media users may establish cognitive involvement. Power is both established and defined cognitively, shaping the way humans view their own legitimacy and capacity to act (B.G. Smith et al. 2015). If one cognitively believes that they are equipped to react and join an active movement, they already feel like they are a part of something. Power is further established within a communal environment, even if this community is purely virtual.
Once people have reacted via vicarious experience and have established their own power within a community, they feel empowered in their advocacy. Digital communication and social media allow people to curate and create their own content. With content creation and mass communication at their fingertips, people feel more empowered to use their voice for the causes they identify with. Humans are driven to use social media because it gives them the confidence and ease that more enclosed daily environments do not always provide. People have access to the experiences and emotions of others around the world, giving them a sense of solidarity and concern based on their own convictions. The human ability to express opinions and create content establishes an autonomy that might not be found in physical communities.
In the case of Taksim Square, many Turkish citizens were unhappy with the media’s portrayal of the protests. Through social platforms, they took it upon themselves to mobilize and share their truths digitally. These mechanisms of mobilization are important to explore. In 2012, a San Diego-based non-profit organization, Invisible Children, launched an internet video campaign highlighting the atrocities committed by the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. “Kony 2012” became one of the first global viral campaigns, changing the very notion of advocacy itself. Within 3 weeks, this YouTube video made its way to Capitol Hill in the United States, launching a bipartisan resolution condemning Kony and his crimes against humanity (Guo and Saxton, 1). Thus, turning to Social Networking Sites (SNS) where people around the world mobilized virtually to attempt to find and arrest Joseph Kony. Hashtags, content sharing, and blogs were among some of the methods advocates engaged with. Petitions and personal social posts were vessels for internet users who wished to take a stand.
“Kony 2012” was not just a hashtag, but an international movement. Through strategic participation, the hashtag not only identified the movement, but linked social media users around the world. A hashtag is not just an expression of identity and community, it is a tool that changes social feeds and the content users have access to. People discover and connect with others, promoting civic engagement and collective action in the process. These elements of civic engagement and collective action are based on education and grassroots movements that successfully bring issues to light on large platforms with millions of users. Through the formation of giant virtual communities, constant engagement, and plans of action, social media proves to be a powerful tool. Access to advocacy and communal confidence has the power to change global circumstances.
Guo, C. and Saxton, G., (2013). Tweeting Social Change. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(1), pp.57-79.
Smith, B., Men, R. and Al-Sinan, R., (2015). Tweeting Taksim communication power and social media advocacy in the Taksim square protests. Computers in Human Behavior, 50(0747-5632), pp.499-507.
Gracis, Matteo (2012) Kony 2012: Ecco Cosa Ne Penso [Photo] Retrieved from www.matteogracis.it/kony-2012-ecco-cosa-ne-penso/.
Sadiki, Larbi. (2018) From Taksim to Tahrir: A Turkish “Arab Spring”? [Photo] Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Retrieved from studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2013/06/2013618111850423294.html.