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Social media and social justice: How to vet online awareness campaigns before jumping in

Here's how to decide if a campaign is worth participating in and to make sure you don't do more damage than good.


Odds are, you've encountered a social media campaign with a social cause. 

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Whether it's a black square on #BlackOutTuesday or a black-and-white selfie for #womensupportingwomen, odds are you've seen some campaign related to a social cause take over your newsfeed.

But at a time when calls to take action are louder than ever, how much good can social media campaigns really do? Fact is, they're not all created equal, and you'll want to pause before deciding which ones to support. 

According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans surveyed said they'd engaged in some type of political or social media related activity in 2018.

In the past decade, a variety of campaigns geared toward social issues have filled social media feeds. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 called on denizens of the internet to dunk themselves with ice water, donate money to ALS research, and tap friends and family to do the same. 

In the tech world, #ILookLikeAnEngineer made women in engineering visible after internet commenters questioned a female engineer's legitimacy based on her looks. The #MeToo movement reached a boiling point in 2017, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in various industries -- women shared stories, and some of the mightiest players in myriad industries fell. #BlackLivesMatter, founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Treyvon Martin, found an international following. It's only grown bigger in the last few months as protests sprung up around the world. 

But as much as social media has been helpful in organizing movements, galvanizing support and even influencing public opinion, there's reason to pause before jumping on the bandwagon and posting to the latest campaign du jour. 

"Social media campaigns aren't necessarily just a fad or lip service. Good things have the ability to come out of them," said Nadia Brown, associate professor of political science at Purdue University. 

Still, the fast-moving nature of social media makes them tricky. 

In June, Black Lives Matter advocates sounded the alarm that people tagging their #BlackOutTuesday posts with #BlackLivesMatter were unintentionally drowning out important information on the BLM hashtag. Some have been left scratching their heads about how exactly posting a black and white selfie does to support women. Yet the hashtag #Challengeccepted racked up more than 3 million uploads by the end of July. 

"Most people are probably not getting to the heart of that challenge to really understand the meaning behind it or potential in what it can accomplish, because the 'me' in social media always takes priority," said Brian Solis, digital anthropologist and global innovation evangelist at Salesforce.

So which campaigns should you participate in and which should you avoid? It's impossible to offer a one-size-fits-all set of guidelines -- every campaign is different and exists for a different reason. It's also important to remember, as Brown said, people around the world find themselves at varying stages of waking up to many of the injustices baked into our everyday systems and institutions. Still, there are a few steps you can take before you hit Post. 

Find out who's behind the campaign

Although the speed and immediacy of the internet seem to demand quick responses, it's worth taking the time to investigate a campaign before you throw whatever social media weight you have behind it. 

"Who is behind it is really important," said Nolan Cabrera, associate professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona."What groups are sponsoring? Those are critically important questions."

Check into whether the campaign is aligned with a specific organization and figure out its  goals and motivations. Is it a nonprofit? A corporation? An individual? A body representing members of an industry?

"Listen to the activists who are most central to this movement and learn and read what they're saying before [taking] an action," said Rachel Einwohner, professor of sociology and political science at Purdue University. 

Cabrera said it's helpful to pay attention to those who have "[their] finger on the pulse and could offer more meaningful reflection about what this is and if it's something worthwhile or not."

Identify the campaign's strategy

Depending on the campaign, it may have calls to action: raising money, collecting signatures, attending an event or calling an elected official. 

Before jumping on board, figure out the campaign's strategy.

Frequently, a campaign might simply be built around increasing awareness. While that's not necessarily negative or disqualifying, there are limitations to a campaign like that. It can summon interest and momentum but not necessarily direct it anywhere.

"It's really really hard to call it social activism if it's not directly linked to some form of action, some form of disruption, and makes groups or people in power actually respond," Cabrera said.

Still, as Brown pointed out, for those becoming aware of various injustices, the act of posting in solidarity with a cause family and friends may not agree with can be a significant step, visibly taking a stand. 

"We have to take into account where people are coming from," Brown said. 

Double-check your hashtags

Hashtags are a defining characteristic of social media campaigns. After all, that's what ties all the posts together. 

If you're not careful, though, you can wipe out the efficacy of a hashtag, as was the case with #BlackLiveMatter during #BlackOutTuesday. A hashtag that's too vague might encompass posts unrelated to the campaign. Or a hashtag formerly used for something else, or hastily made, could also cause confusion.

"The biggest issue is that it can really inadvertently silence the very people whose voices should be heard," Cabrera said.  

Translate your support beyond a post or like

In the era of social media, critics have questioned just how effective a post is -- and the idea that posting without taking any further action is merely the performance of allyship.

Carmen Perez, who co-chaired the Women's March and is executive director of The Gathering for Justice, which aims to end child incarceration, said that when she posts on social media, the post is just a stepping stone. 

"I want to make sure that I also provide a vehicle to an action," Perez said. 

Brown poses these questions: "What actions come with this? Does this change your behavior? Will you write a letter to your congressperson, you go down to protest?  Will you boycott companies that are engaged in discriminatory practices?" 

So, once you've vetted a social media campaign to participate in, remember there's much more that can come after that.