It’s no secret that social media has dramatically impacted the way that social justice movements evolve and develop, and debate over the effectiveness of hashtag activism is a tired one.

We know that hashtag activism at its best is a valuable tool for raising awareness about a cause and amplifying often-ignored minority voices, and, at its worst, a means of shameless self promotion and feel-good, pat-on-the-back publicity.

Often, the debate is spurred on when high profile social media campaigns fizzle out or are found to be insubstantial.

The Kony 2012 campaign was brilliant and short-lived.

Last month, Invisible Children, the advocacy organization behind the viral “Kony 2012” video and subsequent #StopKony2012 social media campaign, announced its closure due to funding issues. The Kony campaign was an instant global sensation, accruing $5 million in 48 hours and more than 100 million views in six days to make it the most viral video in history. However, the group soon came under fire for questionable spending practices. It’s a prime example of how well done social media campaigns can at once garner massive support and be at risk of sudden collapse.

In a digital age where a quick tweet or an Instagram post allow people the freedom to jump from one social justice campaign to the next, how do we avoid getting caught up in the fleeting excitement elicited by a catchy hashtag, and actually foster sustained interest in a cause?

Mariah May, a sophomore at Illinois’ Wheaton College, seems to have it figured out.

tokyo 4 ferguson NEW
Ferguson protests went international.

This past fall, Mariah became involved with the movement revolving around the Ferguson and Eric Garner cases. She participated in protests and demonstrations on her college campus as well as in downtown Chicago. Mariah also volunteers at an after school program called By the Hand, tutoring children who live in high-risk, inner city neighborhoods.

Racial justice has always been important to Mariah, and the Ferguson movement caught her attention via social media when #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDontShoot, and #DearFerguson were trending. In the case of the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests, the hashtags were literally taken from the screen into real life as crowds marched the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago shouting, “Black lives matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” and more.

The movement even went international, with protests erupting in Tokyo, Melbourne, and other cities.

Mariah’s interest quickly turned into a passion, because, she says, “The circumstances surrounding [Ferguson] directly impacted my life and those I love, like the kids at By the Hand.”

Mariah May participated in a demonstration for racial justice on her college campus.
Mariah May participated in a demonstration on her college campus, standing in solidarity with victims of systemic racism.

According to Mariah, personal investment is the key to maintaining genuine care and active, dedicated support for a cause. She says, “It takes going further and actually talking to people who were impacted by Ferguson and racism. For me, I attended a couple of protests, to get a firsthand experience of the emotions surrounding it. I think that’s crucial—being able to relate and connect with it.”

Getting people to engage with a cause on a level deeper than its initial appeal is tricky. The technology that brings people together over a common plea for justice also creates distance and keeps people from communicating about their passions and struggles face-to-face.

In an excerpt from his book on narcissism, Sam Vaknin says, “Modern technology allows us to reach out, but rarely to truly touch . . . Our abilities to empathize and to collaborate with each other are like muscles: they require frequent exercise. Gradually, we are being denied the opportunity to flex them and, thus, we empathize less; we collaborate more fitfully and inefficiently; we act more narcissistically and antisocially.”

People who never witness or experience suffering and injustice for themselves are less likely to feel a sense of responsibility and a connection to the people most affected by it. Screen technology creates a filtered, mediated reality that allows the comfort of staying ignorant and detached from the effects of injustice, and nobody has to feel obligated to actually do something outside of their Twitter feed.

At the end of the day, most people care about things that directly impact themselves and the people they love, and it’s not difficult to take action for a cause that has personal ramifications. But every once in a while, something pops up on your newsfeed that has no personal implications whatsoever, and cuts straight to the heart of the human desire for justice.

That urge to retweet or write a Facebook status is a good thing. (Your empathy is showing!) It’s great to channel feelings of moral outrage into constructive social media posts, and it’s important not to underestimate the power of mass internet activism.

However, it’s even more important that those demands for justice be taken beyond the screen and directed towards tangible, pragmatic solutions. Not everyone can devote all their time and energy to addressing global injustice, but everyone can do something to meet the needs of people in their immediate communities and combat systemic injustice in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.

Tweet global. Act local.


Photos courtesy of Partisans Media, The Chicago Tribune, and Revolution News.