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6 min read

Social media activism — a lazy or powerful tool?


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About Social Media Strategy

Social media is a powerful channel that can be used for the benefit of a community. However, this requires a mastery of social media, says Laura Põldma, who studied the role of social media in community activism in her bachelor’s thesis.

  • Creating a Facebook group for fighting against the closure of a hospital’s maternity ward and mobilizing a community with 3,000 members.
  • Initiating an online petition to prevent the opening of a limestone quarry and the discussion of “a war strategy” in a closed social media group.
  • Continuous content creation on the Facebook site of a small school to support the continuation of the school.

These are some examples of community activism in social media, which has been increasingly seen in Estonian public media in recent years. The internet is used not only by mass movements, but also by small community-based movements for whom social media offers the opportunity to express themselves both inside and outside of a local context[i]. The importance of social media as a networking tool is significant from the viewpoint of the internal dynamics of civic associations, as found by Tanel Vallimäe and Peeter Vihma, in an analysis of the results of a study conducted in 2019 by Tallinn University, the Institute of Baltic Studies, and Turu-uuringute AS, for evaluating the situation within Estonian civil society.[ii]

In the eyes of critics, on the other hand, online activism is simply slacktivism, an activity that can make people feel good, but has little effect on political decisions[iii]. So, how can social media activism be dealt with? Is it just an activity that distracts citizens from other, more efficient forms of participation? Or is social media a thermometer that enables the measurement of a community’s mood on a certain moment? And what about the opinion that being primarily active on social media and spreading one’s message there makes an initiative less serious?

In my bachelor’s thesis “The role of social media in community activism on the example of three conflict cases”, I studied the communicative aspects, specifically of the impact of social media on community activism from the point of view of mobilization and influencing activities in three cases: the Põlva Hospital Maternity Ward, the Lüganuse Limestone Quarry, and the Harmi Elementary School Discussions with initiative leaders as well as civil society experts – Hille Hinsberg and Martin Noorkõiv, highlighted several aspects that could help the 21st century activist to understand the role of social media from a mobilization and impact perspective.

Make the community’s opinion visible. Social media gives a community a voice and makes their outrage visible. The leader in one case study found that social media has made civil society more widely perceived, and there are many different opinions in Estonia about how to organize coexistence. The resulting pluralism is good, but there is also a downside in using social media to make resentment visible – the multiplicity of opinions. As one leader put it: when there are so many opinions, people in decisive positions may feel that it is never possible to consider everyone’s opinion. However, this hampers the activities of civil society. In such an increasingly “tight market” traditional methods – both demonstrations with slogans and protest events in Facebook – will eventually devalue.

Converting support to real actions. Social media can be useful for mapping support: one leader felt that Facebook was a kind of score-card or thermometer – as it was not known, at first, whether the community was happy with the respective closure. FB provided excellent input for leaders to understand the mood of the community. At the same time, is it worth paying attention to whether the extent of support and the thousands of members who joined the Facebook group add the actual value to the initiative? How many of those who are active on Facebook, are ready to do something in real life? This question arose for the activists themselves as well. Online activism has been seen as “lazy” activism, which speaks to persons who do not find time to participate actively.[iv]

At the same time, in the case of the Põlva Hospital’s Maternity Ward, it can be seen that activism, in the form of joining the Facebook group, was also expressed in real-life activities. A large number of signatures were collected – over 9,000 – and the collection of signatures on paper was not initiated by the leaders, but by other members of the community. In conclusion, it all depends on what other methods are used – combining different channels may help compensate the negative aspects of another. But you should compare comparable things. Many people, who are activists in social media, did absolutely nothing for the community in the past.[v] So, online activism is still better than no participation at all.

The digital gap in the digital country. Social networks include the risk of exacerbating inequalities if social media users tend to be more technologically skilled and have a higher level of human, social, and economic capital.[vi] It is worth noting that if an initiative is only active on social media, it may exclude part of a community from the debate. Be it older people or those who have consciously chosen to stay away from social media.

At the same time, one may ask whether Estonia, which is (according to the 2019 report of the European Center for Policy Studies) the highest-ranked country in the European Union in terms of digital learning and has a high level of computer literacy[vii], should worry about the digital gap at all? Although the problem may not be as great as in other countries, it is reasonable to consider that certain groups are more difficult to reach through online channels. Consequently, the combination of different channels and tools is also relevant in the context of the digital gap. In addition to creating a Facebook group, you should also bring your messages to the media, organize face-to-face events and, if necessary, establish direct contacts.

The issue of credibility. If an activity is only taking place in social media, its influence diminishes and decision-makers may think: “let them discuss it somewhere on their own and live out their resentment, life goes on”. Indeed: do decision-makers perceive a discussion in a Facebook group as equivalent to, for example, an editorial in an all-Estonian daily newspaper or a face-to-face meeting? There is no risk of social media not being taken seriously – the channel itself matters less than whether the message is “highlighted” in the channel, and whether the platform is right for spreading that particular message, i.e., the general ability to format and package the message. [viii] The impact of a media article can sometimes be much smaller than that of a social media posting, and a large number of voters in a group is much more influential for decision-makers.[ix]

Lack of social media competence and poor division of roles. As mentioned, social media gives communities a voice. However, not everyone’s opinion is always constructive. If the use of social media is unreasoned with several members of the community making random postings, it may not leave the best impression about the initiative. It is not necessary to censor, but a prerequisite for the successful operation of social media is a well-thought division of roles. It is certainly worthwhile to observe the experiences and journeys of other communities, as this can provide important knowledge.

Echo chamber effect. In conflicting cases of community activism, how the activists perceive the counterparts, their opinions, and arguments is important. Unfortunately, the features of social media (such as the ease of removing people from your friends list) encourage the emergence of echo chambers.[x] The “common reality” becomes socially validated in the echo chamber and can strengthen people’s world views. [xi] An explicit worldview and passion for a topic also tend to be expressed in more active, and often more emotional, speech. Although heated debates help to mobilize people, public debates are increasingly too emotional, leading to polarization and to not pursuing the long-term goals of defending the interests of communities.[xii]

In the context of influencing and the echo chamber effect, it is important to understand community awareness of how what decisions are made – and what is the vision of other stakeholders, including decision-makers – directly affects the success of protection of interests. A situation can easily arise, in an echo chamber, wherein excessive emotionality hinders the formation of constructive argumentation, and therefore directly prevents successful participation in the discussion. A situation should be avoided where officials make decisions based on economic considerations but are hit by activists with very different “sticks”. The degree of emotionality should depend on the goal of the community: for organising a great popular movement it can be efficient, but overly aggressive action can make politicians angry and work against the community.[xiii]

The spiral of silence. According to the spiral of silence theory, people censor opinions that they assume are unpopular.[xiv] It is clear that the wider the message of a community is, the more people fit under that wider message. By becoming too polarized and extreme (facilitated by the echo chamber effect) a community may lose members, as common ground becomes smaller and smaller. At the same time, it has been pointed out that due to the disappearance of walls around social environments, every narrator must consider whether they either insult someone or smooth their message to a degree that it is no longer attractive to anyone.[xv] Here, each community must find the right balance – to involve as many from the community as possible, but without losing its uniqueness.

Laura Põldma defended her bachelor’s thesis “The role of social media in community activism on the example of three conflict cases” this year at the University of Tartu. The full paper is available in the UT Digital Archive DSpace.

[i] Ruiu, M., Ragnedda, M. (2017). Empowering local communities through collective grassroots actions: The case of “No Al Progetto Eleonora” in the Arborea District (OR, Sardinia). The Communication Review, 20(1), pg. 51. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714421.2016.127227

[ii] Vallimäe, P., Vihma, T. (2019). Eesti mittetulundusühingud ja koostöö. Riigikogu toimetised, 40, pg. 185. https://rito.riigikogu.ee/nr-40/eesti-mittetulundusuhingud-ja-koostoo/

[iii] Christensen, H. S. (2011). Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means. First Monday, 16(2), pg. 9. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v16i2.3336

[iv] Cammaerts, B. (2015). Social media and activism. R. Mansell, P. Hwa (toim). The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, pg. 7. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/62090/1/Social_media_and.pdf

[v] Noorkõiv, M. (2021). Author’s interview in the framework of a bachelor’s thesis.

[vi] Valenzuela, S., Arriagada, A., Scherman, A. (2012). The Social Media Basis of Youth Protest Behavior: The Case of Chile. Journal of Communication, 62(2), pg. 13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2012.01635.x

[vii] Eesti on kõige digiõpihimulisem riik Euroopas. (2019). HITSA, 11. December. Kasutatud 02.02.2020, https://www.hitsa.ee/uudised-1/eesti-on-koige-digiopihimulisem-riik-euroopas

[viii] Hinsberg, H. (2020). Author’s interview in the framework of a bachelor’s thesis.

[ix] Noorkõiv, M. (2021). Author’s interview in the framework of a bachelor’s thesis.

[x] Greijdanus, H., Fernandes, C. A., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Honari, A., Roos, C.A., Rosenbusch, H., Postmes, T. (2020). The psychology of online activism and social movements: relations between online and offline collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology35, pg. 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.03.003

[xi] Greijdanus, H., Fernandes, C. A., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Honari, A., Roos, C.A., Rosenbusch, H., Postmes, T. (2020). The psychology of online activism and social movements: relations between online and offline collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology35, pg. 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.03.003

[xii][xii] Vallimäe, P., Vihma, T. (2019). Eesti mittetulundusühingud ja koostöö. Riigikogu toimetised, 40, pg. 182. https://rito.riigikogu.ee/nr-40/eesti-mittetulundusuhingud-ja-koostoo/

[xiii] Hinsberg, H., Noorkõiv, M. (2021). Author’s interviews in the framework of a bachelor’s thesis.

[xiv] Greijdanus, H., Fernandes, C. A., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Honari, A., Roos, C.A., Rosenbusch, H., Postmes, T. (2020). The psychology of online activism and social movements: relations between online and offline collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology35, pg. 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.03.003

[xv] Viik, K. (2019). Konteksti häving sotsiaalmeedias. Postimees, 17. October. Used 11.01.2020, https://kultuur.err.ee/992749/kadi-viik-konteksti-having-sotsiaalmeedias

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