Social Media: The Modern Architect of Effective Activism

Laetitia Haddad

     To many, social media and Generation Z are nearly synonymous. Pew Research Center reports that 95% of teens in the United States own smartphones and 45% are consistently online in some capacity. In light of these statistics, many kids my age don’t view technology as just another asset for communication; rather, our devices encompass the many trends and subcultures that color our lives, and they function as inseparable mediums of expression.

Instant access to global information and amplified sharing platforms provide fertile ground for the growth and mobilization of activism. Maddy Carr, a sophomore, states that there is a covenant between protest culture and our generation. She says that “young people are one of the most important parts of activism because they really can’t do anything else but protest — we can’t vote, we can’t run for office.” Certainly, these hurdles are not causing Generation Z to shy away from the limelight. 


     “I have been waiting so long for something like this to happen,” Joanna Gates remarks. An art teacher, Gates survived the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado. In 2018, she witnessed the March For Our Lives, finding it “just incredible. These children have achieved more in a month than us adults have done in years. It’s time for change. It’s beyond time.” In many ways, the March For Our Lives catalyzed a spike in student activism across the nation, as well as around the world. Around 800,000 protesters rallied on Pennsylvania Avenue in response to the Parkland school shooting, which claimed 17 lives. Led by students, this March mobilized hundreds of thousands around a single demand for legislators: pass more gun control laws and save our lives. 


     Within Virginia, the Fairfax County School District has recently passed a groundbreaking policy, changing norms and setting a precedent for the rest of the nation. Now, students between 7th and 12th grades are eligible for one excused absence per year for “civic engagement.” By submitting a form ahead of time and checking in at school in the morning, students are free to make their voices heard by protesting or lobbying. The Fairfax School Board argues that this new program fosters the growth of future engaged citizens. These skills of activism are promptly relevant. 


     In many ways, 2019 was a year of protest. Spanning countries from Latin America to Asia, streets flooded with protesters rallying on a variety of issues — from political oppression, to climate change, to immigration. Though there were many divergent factors at play, the consistent scale of mobilization seen around the world is unparalleled in recent history. 

In light of this surge in demonstrations, Dean McGuire remarks that “it’s exceptionally important that we are allowing our young people to feel empowered... they’re going to be our next crop of voters, and they can put incredible amounts of pressure upon elected officials. We’ve seen it happen with the March For Our Lives.” 


     Apart from being orchestrated by teenagers, another groundbreaking aspect of the March For Our Lives was its confident command of social media. An instant of monumental activism occurred because student leadership effectively utilized social media, a language they were fluent in. On the 14th of March, ten days before the demonstration, approximately 1.3 million social media posts were generated on the subject of National Walkout Day. On the day of the protest, #MarchForOurLives was tweeted 3.6 million times. 


     Amelia Duncan and Catherine Onorato, sophomores who have both participated in the March For Our Lives and the Women’s March, find social media to be a “huge asset. When planning for the March For Our Lives with Young Dems last spring, everyone in the club had instructions on how to get out of your class and what metro station on our Instagram stories.”

Though Luke Senich, a senior, has never been to a rally, he comments on the role of social media in activism and states that “it plays a huge role, because it makes it so much easier to coordinate logistics.” Physical mobilization is only one facet of activism today; now, online presence is nearly as important, permeating a cause at a viral speed. 


     The Associated Press reports that the rise of social media is a major cause in the large spike in protests. Prior to the accessibility and amplification of social media, activists would rally around a central, charismatic figure to organize and address an issue. Now, there is truly more power with the people, as sharing platforms allow almost anyone, young or old, to bring attention to a problem and garner interest for protests. 


     Oftentimes, when demonstrations abroad grow chaotic, one of the first things to be restricted are social media platforms. For instance, this past November, many Iranians took to the streets to protest an increase in regime-mandated gasoline prices. In response to this, the 

government shut down internet access across the nation. In January of 2019, anti-government protests in light of an economic crisis rocked Sudan. Access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter was heavily restricted. To many governments, the sprawling expanse of the internet allows for a dangerous amount of anonymity responsible for stirring up unrest. However, social media is not the only common theme between these protests. Economic disparity and political oppression are another two factors behind the steady rise in activism around the world. 

     In many ways, activism is a declaration of existence and a demand to be heard. Luke Senich remarks that for “any politician, when they see thousands of their constituents marching under a unified banner, it’s a wake up call that, alright, these people to see change, and I either have to give it to them or they’ll put in someone else who will.” Perhaps, the role of protests is not always to cause immediate change, but rather, to demonstrate the power of the people against an institution that tramples on their rights, and a true expression of humanity. 


     Amnesty International, an NGO focused on promoting human rights affirms that “protesting peacefully is not a crime. It is, in fact, a human right.” As young people, participating in activism is one of our most important rights. Within the United States, it is our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate. 


     “Activism,” says Dean McGuire, “is one of the greatest things about living in the United States. You’re allowed to participate — you can get out there, and you can carry your signs and no one’s going to judge you.”  On the subject of student protesters in our community, Dean McGuire makes it clear that, “no one’s going to get you in trouble. Just make sure that the kids that are going with you, that their parents know that they’re going. If you really want to do a walkout, walkout.”


     Ryan McElveen of the Fairfax School Board reminds us that “public education in the United States was founded on the belief that we need to raise our young people to be productive citizens and give back to society.” As the world grows to be an increasingly uncertain place, testing our values and turning nations on their heads, one thing is for sure: Generation Z is growing up, armed with technology that ensures enduring protest culture.