Can a Meme Save Society? The Role of Social Media in Social Movements

It was a Tuesday morning back in early June. I started my day by checking Instagram, per usual, because I’m a social media junkie. As I scrolled through my feed, I began to see black square after black square. At first, I thought it was a glitch, so I exited the app and restarted it. Yet, nothing changed; my feed was still all black squares. I was confused, so I turned to my friend Google for the answer. After a quick search, I realized it was not a glitch, but rather a statement. 

This was my introduction to “Black Tuesday”— the social media protest in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I watched as many of my peers posted black squares in support of the movement. What surprised me most were the people who posted black screens, even though I’ve heard them utter racist remarks in the past. I was optimistic and hoped they had changed their ways, but their later actions didn’t reflect that. It was as if they thought posting a black screen exempted them from future bad behavior. It became a get out of jail free card. A statement seeming to say, “hey, look at me. I’m not a racist.” 

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Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Social media is a powerful tool to spread awareness of causes for movements such as Black Lives Matter. However, many people believe their work ends once they post a black square. Thus, hashtag movements generate a short burst of momentum only to be forgotten in a couple of days. The question is, how do you transfer momentum from the digital realm to the real world? Is posting on social media enough? And if not, how can we use social media to launch real change.

We often fall for the idea that change has to happen in big waves. The go big or go home mentality. We think getting involved means donating to big organizations, volunteering our time to a cause, or starting a movement. We focus on making big moves and neglect the little things in our life. But change is often a culmination of different actions in everyday life, which means that checking just one box is not enough. It’s time we reflect on our everyday activities and how they impact our world. We all have underlying biases that need to be brought to the surface and addressed. 

I’m not saying that social media has no role in these movements; in fact, I think it plays a significant role. Before the days of Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms, it was challenging to distribute information about social causes. Today, you can whip out your smartphone and record pretty much any act of injustice. Add a caption and some hashtags, and boom, suddenly the whole world can witness what you just saw. It puts the power in our hands. Instead of relying on traditional media to cover topics, we can bring awareness to them ourselves. 

Social media has leveled the playing field in regards to spreading information, but you must be willing to step outside of the digital world to claim the title of an activist. In an interview with Samantha Bee, Feminista Jones discussed the difference between memification and activism. Feminista Jones says, “when you are an activist, you are going to provide people with the information they need to do things, to act.” This means encouraging people to go to protests, donate money, and email their governors and senators. Posting on social media is the bare minimum when it comes to involvement in movements. 

Feminista Jones is an American writer and activist. She is a contributor to Black Twitter and she developed multiple social media campaigns.

One of the problems with relying solely on social media is that trends come and go. One minute everyone is dumping ice buckets on their head in support of ALS, and the next people are dancing to Cardi B’s latest song. By the time you finish reading this article, there will be a new trend. But trends aren’t built to last; they eventually lose momentum. That’s why it is essential we do more than push a button. It’s much harder to hold a friend accountable after making a racist comment than to hit repost on a meme. We need to start holding each other responsible in person, having those awkward conversations, marching in the streets, and making time to vote.

It’s challenging to go against the crowd and say something, especially as a teenager. My high school faced issues of racism, specifically surrounding the N-word. There were white students at my school who thought it was ok to use this word, not realizing the weight it carried. I’m ashamed to admit this, but there were many times when I let it slide. I thought to myself, “ugh, I don’t want to get into this argument right now,” “I don’t want to be that kid,” or worst of all, “it’s not my place.” It took educating myself further on this word’s impact to realize it is my place to step in. I began confronting anyone head-on who said it to me. I pushed myself to have difficult conversations. For a while, I became known as “that kid.” People would say, “it’s just a joke loosen up,” or “oh right, I forgot you’re so sensitive.” I willingly embraced the label of “that kid” if it meant  that I was trying to educate people and stand up for what I believed in. 

We must go about confronting people in the right way. The goal is to create an open conversation, not to attack them. When people are being attacked, they immediately flip their defensive switch on. In a New York Times article entitled How to Respond to Microaggressions, Hahna Yoon gives readers tips on tackling Microaggressions. Yoon recommends telling your personal process or simply telling someone how their words affect you. Compassion and openness is the key to a productive conversation. We have to be willing to listen to others, if we want them to listen to us. Make no mistake; these conversations will be uncomfortable, but they are essential to moving forward as a society. 

It’s time we look at our lives and ask ourselves, what more can I be doing? Social media should be utilized to share your story and spread awareness. So yes, use every platform you have to encourage others to get involved, but don’t forget to get involved yourself. Be sure to carry the messages from social media over into your everyday life. Hold your peers accountable for the things they post as well. We have to remember that there is no one magic solution. When you think your work is done, do more. 

We are living in historic times. In 30 years, the younger generations will ask us what it was like to live through these movements. I don’t know about you, but I hope to tell them I did more than post a meme on Instagram. 

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Charlotte Macht
Intern at The Commoner | + posts

Charlotte is an intern at The Commoner who has had a passion for writing ever since she could hold a pen. She grew up in Massachusetts and is a huge Patriots fan. Charlotte will be attending the University of Miami next fall as a communications major. In her spare time, she enjoys playing music and petting her two adorable dogs.

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Jen

Great article! Words should also be challenged in songs. I hear the N word often In rap and that should also be taken down/challenge. It’s not ok. When I have brought this up before – answers I get – “artists are expressing themselves”. Children and teens listen to this music.

Sam

I love this article. People have to change their everyday actions as well as social media. I noticed this with MeToo as well. People were using the hashtag but not changing their behavior irl.

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