Social media activism: Is it ‘risky’ enough?

Protestors gather at the Utah County Stands with Palestine Ceasefire protest in Provo on Nov. 4, 2023. Generation Z is approaching political activism and protesting in new, controversial ways: through social media. (Alice Gubler)

Generation Z is using social media to engage in political activism in ways that can seem new and controversial, but experts are questioning the on-the-ground impact of these efforts.

For example, the viral “All Eyes on Rafah” AI-generated image has gained immense traction on Instagram throughout the last month, with now more than 50 million shares on the platform. The image was originally created and posted by Instagram user @shahv4012 to bring attention to the Israeli airstrikes that killed at least 45 displaced people in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on May 26. Both Palestinians and those of other nationalities took to their Instagram stories to re-share the image and show their support for the Palestinian people.

The viral “All Eyes on Rafah” AI-generated image now has more than 50 million shares on Instagram. Generation Z is approaching political activism and protesting in new, controversial ways: through social media. (@shahv4012 via Instagram)

While this image has garnered much attention, whether or not the post accomplishes its goal has been debated. Aaron Skabelund, director of the BYU Office of Civic Engagement, said evaluating the effectiveness of these kinds of movements is difficult.

“I think social media is an important way to mobilize people. I am somewhat skeptical if it’s only happening online,” Skabelund said. “Unless people are willing to physically and personally go out and interact with people, I’m not sure it will be all that effective.”

Sama Salah is the president and co-founder of the Arab Student Association at BYU. As both an Arab and an American, Salah said she is politically active on social media as she feels a moral obligation to stand up for the injustices affecting her people. However, she said posting should be a first step.

She said educating oneself is the most important way to approach political activism. Her advice was aimed at a pro-Palestinian perspective but the same steps could be taken in service of just about any interest or cause.

“If you don’t know where to start, ask an Arab friend. If you don’t have an Arab friend, find your local group of Arabs on Instagram, like the ASA or clubs at your university,” Salah said. “Watch and follow the accounts of journalists on the ground in Gaza, call your representatives and ask them to stop supporting the killing of innocent children, donate to families in need.”

Salah explained she wanted others to remember that advocating for peace in the Middle East should not be boiled down to just a “trend,” but should be recognized as an essential movement in the world right now.

“Just because a movement is gaining traction and it’s growing in massive numbers doesn’t mean that it’s a trend,” Salah said. “I think it means that more and more people are recognizing what is important.”

On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 250 and wounding more than 1,500 innocent civilians, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in decades. The tragedy led to a surge of social media posts expressing support for Israel and the innocent lives taken in the attack. The public took particular note of the large amount of celebrities who posted in solidarity with Israel.

Some of these celebrities included Madonna, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Natalie Portman, Andy Cohen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Amy Schumer, Kris Jenner and more.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot was one celebrity who was especially vocal on her Instagram about her support for Israel. “I stand with Israel you should too,” Gadot said in an Instagram caption. “The world cannot sit on the fence when these horrific acts of terror are happening.” Her post received more than 1.2 million likes.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot posted in support of Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Many celebrities took to social media to comment on the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023. (@gal_gadot via Instagram)

Gadot and others were met with praise for their posts, but also faced extreme backlash from their pro-Palestine followers, causing many of these celebrities to disable the comment section on their posts to decrease contention.

The “All Eyes on Rafah” AI image and posts in support of Israel raised awareness about recent attacks, but the Jewish-Palestinian conflict has been affecting innocent lives for decades. Skabelund explained it is challenging to convey such complicated problems and detailed history with just an Instagram story post.

“I feel like, often on social media, (these issues) are painted in stark, black and white terms and a lot of nuances are lost. It’s much more difficult to have civil, nuanced, complicated conversation on those sort of platforms,” Skabelund said.

Social media posts can also be a breeding ground for performative activism, according to Sama Salah’s sister and co-founder of the ASA, Noureen Salah.

Robert Flores, vice president of the BYU Hebrew Club, said he thinks the more trendy a topic is, the less likely people are to be informed because of their desire to quickly jump on the bandwagon without educating themselves first.

“I think that social media should be a place of opinions and ideas, never a place to shout the ‘facts,'” Flores said. “If you want to support a political agenda on social media, the best thing to do is to raise questions and offer slightly different ideas. Everyone has already made up their mind with politics, attacking the other side or picking an obvious side isn’t going to do anything, you’re just alienating the other group and forcing them to become more polarized.”

President of the BYU Hebrew Club Serena Wilson Green shared a similar concern she has with posting about politics.

“It’s harder to discuss the nuance of situations, especially when the truth stands in tension with your preexisting bias,” Green said. “Everyone wants to be part of a cause and a community that makes them feel good about what they’re doing. Unfortunately that often comes at the sacrifice of rationality for the sake of virality.”

A similar viral trend with political activism took place during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. Floyd’s death, which was documented on video and spread across social media, lead to protests across the U.S. — one being #blackouttuesday, where social media users posted a black square on their feed to signal solidarity with Black Americans affected by institutional racism and police brutality.

“The problem with (social media activism) is that simply reposting a black square or an artistic quote that aligns with the aesthetic of your Instagram comes off as out of touch,” Noureen Salah said. “Do they really know the purpose of that black square? Do they really know why the AI image of ‘All Eyes on Rafah’ has a bunch of tents in it? Reposting is great, but share your thoughts too. Share information to help others understand.”

The Blackout Tuesday hashtag on Instagram gained more than 11 million posts on the first day of the trend. Generation Z is approaching political activism and protesting in new, controversial ways: through social media. (CNBC)

While some users criticized others posting the viral black square as performative activists, the trend still drew much attention to the public, garnering more than 11 million posts with the #blackouttuesday hashtag on just the first day of the trend.

Isabel Martinez, who runs the BYUSA Women of Color Club‘s social media page, said she believes trending hashtags are effective because they allow important information to spread quickly.

“It can also bring awareness to issues that may not be covered by mainstream media outlets,” Martinez said of social media activism. “By drumming up more support, more people can learn about protests, petitions and donations they can contribute to the cause. So, I believe that they accomplish their goal at the end of the day because they can create conversations and raise awareness.”

Arianna Jenks, Women of Color Club secretary, learns a lot about what is happening in the world from seeing what other people share on social media. Jenks said she also recognizes bias in what she is exposed to on these platforms.

“I follow a lot of like-minded people on social media, meaning people with similar political stances. I realize that this makes everything I see very biased in favor of the things I agree with,” Jenks said. “I think these biases can be dangerous because it can blind us to the reality of situations and discourage us from looking more into the issues and educating ourselves further.”

Skabelund emphasized the importance of searching for reliable sources when it comes to political issues and major events throughout the world. He advised individuals to look to more traditional forms of media, such as The New York Times, whose staff does intensive fact-checking and reaches out to expert sources for their stories to get a variety of perspectives on issues.

While political activism may seem like a complicated practice in which to become involved, Skabelund explained individuals can make a real difference in the world. He said he hopes people “become much more civically engaged by going beyond social media, maybe showing up at an actual physical but peaceful, legal protest as well.”

He added protesting is most effective when it is “risky,” when people actually go out and interact with others to stand up for what they believe is right.

The General Handbook for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says “members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs.” This includes participating in peaceful, legal protests, communicating with party officials and candidates and providing financial support.

Participating in political affairs may look different for each individual. Sama Salah shared that even posting about Palestine is helpful because it keeps the events of the ongoing war in social media algorithms. It is a signal of solidarity, she said, even if it is not an incredibly strong one.

“If you’re just joining now, welcome. Thank you,” Sama Salah said to individuals posting about the Israel-Hamas war. “We owe it to people that are suffering around the world to care that they’re suffering because we would want people to care if we were suffering.”

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