Tools for Change: The role of social media in activism

How many times has a picture of a starving child, living in poverty come up on your news feed with a caption reading, “1 LIKE = 1 PRAY and $1 DONATED” come up on your news feed? I have personally lost track of the times I have continued scrolling past said posts without stopping. But that didn’t change the fact that these pictures have thousands of growing likes.

This idea of using social media to create positive change is known as clicktivism. After recently being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, clicktivism is officially defined as “the use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause.”  Social media is changing the way we communicate and is giving a voice to the voiceless. You don’t need to be famous, rich or powerful to tweet, just Internet connection. Many, like Malcolm Gladwell, believe Twitter will not be saving the world any time soon. Gladwell stated in a New Yorker article, “Social media is build around weak ties…where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools” (Gladwell, 2010). While examples like the one I gave above emphasise the idea of ‘slacktivism’, which is participating in online activism with no effort or involvement truly put in, there are many cases that have proved these theories wrong.

Take for example the recent activity in Ferguson. In early August, an unarmed African American teen, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb in St. Louis in the U.S. While the circumstances of the incident are in dispute, the African American community of Ferguson felt as though it was a clear example of the continuing racial discrimination existing in the 21st century so they began to protest, physically and online. With the use of social media, the story spread and gained attention and support all over the world. Twitter was overflowing with tweets using #Ferguson to show support for the people of Ferguson and the issues at hand.

The following link shows the explosion of the #Ferguson on twitter across the world, over the 11 days after the shooting.

So did social media help the cause? While it didn’t stop protests or bring an end to discrimination, it started a conversation. How easily Ferguson’s “small town” issues could have flown under the radar. Social media gave the people of Ferguson the ability to get their story out. Brittney Packnett, the executive director of Teach for America – St Louis, stated “This movement is not about an organisation, but rather about giving young people in Ferguson an outlet to channel raw energy to be productive and have their concerns be heard” (2014).

There will always be positives and negatives to social media. It has strengths and weaknesses like anything else and I believe this is the key to successfully using social media for activism. Like Gladwell said, “we are defined by our tools” (2014), but these tools are connecting the world together to create a community open to change.


Buchanan, L, Fessenden, F, Park, H, Parlapiano, A & Wallace, T 2014, ‘What Happened in Ferguson?’, The New York Times, 22 August, viewed 1 October 2014,

Gladwell, Malcolm 2014, ‘Small Change’, The New Yorker, 4 October, viewed 1 October 2014,

Moffitt, Kelly 2014, ‘How social media is playing a role in Ferguson’, St Louis Business Journal, 14 August, viewed 1 October 2014,

Zak, Elana 2014, ‘How #Ferguson Has Unfolded on Twitter’, The Wall Street Journal, 18 August, viewed 1 October 2014,


2 thoughts on “Tools for Change: The role of social media in activism

  1. love your post, a really interesting read. I agree, social media is a powerful tool, i don’t think everyone knows the power they have these days just laying around in their pockets. keep up the good work, can’t wait to read more.

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