Generational Movement From Slacktivism to Activism

There are not many issues of more concern to me and thousands in Colorado than gun violence.  Not just gun violence; but mass shootings.  Not just anywhere; but in our schools.  In the midst of these events, social media is used as an avenue for expressing views about gun ownership and use.  Some use SNS (social networking sites) to argue for stricter gun control laws, while others promote looser gun carry regulations within their own interpretations of Second Amendment rights.

For the latter, Patrick Parsons, Georgia Gun Owners Executive Director, is a good example. In the KUNC.org report about how Activists Are Using Social Media to Redefine the Second Amendment, Parsons describes how he makes a Facebook post every day on a Facebook page with over 400,000 followers in order to publicize his version of a gun rights bills that eliminates permit requirements in Georgia and makes a weapons license optional.  Even more, a lobbying app on his phone shows over 6,000 messages (as of March 2019) sent to Georgia lawmakers supporting a ‘constitutional carry’ bill.  Whether or not you are a proponent of Parson’s cause, he is certainly taking advantage of several of Jennifer James’s 8 Tips for Effectively Using Social Media for Social Change, including her recommendations to: (1) Gather advocates, (4) Create sustained conversations, and (6) Identify your core demographic.  While Georgia Gun Owners members cover a range of ages, Parsons as a Millennial knows that his social presence and the lobbying app are crucial to his cause, and Tom Spengler would agree that “the ability to offer mobile and online apps to citizens is vital to engaging this generation” (Civic Engagement: Why Millennials Have Outpaced Seniors).

But Parsons is not the only young activist capitalizing on social media.  Even as ‘far back’ as 2013, the Pew Research Center on Internet & Technology in their Civic Engagement in the Digital Age report stated that 63% of SNS users had “gotten involved” with fellow citizens in a meeting or group to solve some identified problem in their community – the national average is only 48%.  It is noteworthy that the PRC identified this as “involvement” in social activism rather than simply awareness, or what some have called slacktivism: mere Facebook posts (or the like) of support for social change without the political activism to back it up.  On the other hand, Jonathan Moyer felt that from 2012-2016 slacktivism was alive and well (Political Activism on Social Media Has Grown Some Teeth), even amidst mass shootings and terrorist attacks.  But late 2016 saw a major shift, which some say was initiated by the Trump campaign and presidency, and followed up by such events as the Women’s March and the March for Science.  By early 2017, Moyer argued that the era of slacktivism had ended, because “people are now faced with real, personal, unavoidable issues that drive them into public spaces to attempt to break down oppressive structures [that] has resulted in a sort of national renaissance of political activism.”  The study conducted by Howard, Savage, Saviaga, Toxtli, and Monroy-Hernandez in late 2016, Social Media, Civic Engagement, and the Slacktivism Hypothesis: Lesson’s from Mexico’s “El Bronco”, came up with similar results.  Their research suggested that in recent years, when political leaders and citizen share a social media platform such as Facebook, there is a higher likelihood of positive civic “engagement” that results, an activism that goes beyond SNS slacktivism.  

And the trend continues, evident in the now-adulting Generation Z who are carrying the activism banner even higher.  January 2019 brought yet another Pew Research Center study, this one in Social & Demographic Trends, where it states that Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues.  Furthermore, Gen Z continues to use social media to spread the word, not just to voice support online for a cause, but to invite its fellow members to act, to actually show up at a rally or event.

Which brings us back to gun violence in our Colorado schools.  After the most recent mass shooting at The STEM School in Highlands Ranch (May 7, 2019), students used social media to publicize a gun control rally, but then returned to the same platform to decry what they considered a politicization of their gathering.  The event began as somewhat of a vigil in honor of Kendrick Castillo, but soon transformed into a stage for various politicians to voice their political agendas about restrictive gun laws.  Even though many of the students would consider themselves gun control proponents, still hundreds of them marched out of the event within its first 30 minutes, exclaiming that their good intent had been turned into a “political stunt.”  Soon social media was aflame with support for the students’ counter-protest, but many SNS posts were by gun rights activists that identified the student walk-out as in their support.  Social media became a platform for who’s on whose side, rather than communicating care and support for victims of yet another traumatic event in a Colorado community.  Danah Boyd had expressed a related concern in her lecture, “What World Are We Building?” (Oct 20, 2015): “I watched activists leverage technology to connect people in unprecedented ways while marketers used the same tools to manipulate people” – and the same can be said about those using SNS for political aims.  This brings us to an important moment of reflection about social media for social justice and change.  Social media as a platform for ‘spreading the word’ can be used altruistically or destructively, depending upon the word being spread.  We must keep a watchful eye and a discerning mind in our SNS communities and do what we can to help our younger generations navigate online so they can truly change their world.  As often as needed, we must quote Boyd in saying that “we need those who are thinking about social justice to understand technology and those who understand technology to commit to social justice.”

Related article:  Should People Have To Pass A Social Media Check To Get A Gun? (CBS Denver, Dec 4, 2018).

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