How to ensure your online activism has an offline impact

The Women’s March on Washington took place in January 2017 and boasted crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Its size belies its beginnings though: The largest single-day protest in U.S. history started with a Facebook post created by a grandmother in Hawaii

To some, the march and its speedy rollout typified the unique for that social media affords us. With tools like Facebook and Twitter, disparate groups are able to mobilize faster than ever before. 

But others question how much social media can really do for activist efforts. Some argue that online activism — sometimes despairingly called slacktivism — might be ineffective or lazy, especially when compared to the efforts of activists in decades past. Critics argue that actions like sharing a hashtag or retweeting a post might make people feel like they’ve supported a cause when they’ve actually just made a minimal effort. 

So how do you embrace the potential that digital activism affords you while ensuring that your likes, shares, and hashtags actually have an impact?

Forthcoming research from three professors focused on digital media, identity, and social change — University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Sarah Jackson, Northeastern University professors Dr. Moya Bailey, and Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles — can offer some advice. 

In their soon-to-be-released book, Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice (MIT Press 2020), Bailey, Foucault Welles, and Jackson argue that by effectively coupling the speed of communication on the internet with careful organizing, activist efforts organized online can potentially build inclusive, connected movements with a speed and magnitude possibly not accessible — or even imaginable — to earlier generations of organizers. 

The professors spoke to Mashable about their findings, and the ways in which anyone can use social media to build a movement and spur real change. We also gained insights from a leader in the organization behind the #MeToo Movement, as well as an organizer involved in digital campaigning for the Global Climate Strikes, which united protesters from around the world in conducting strikes for climate action. Here’s what they had to say.

Tell a story and and keep telling it

Bailey, Foucault Welles, and Jackson all maintain that the ways in which movements grow online today is similar to how movements grew before the internet, particularly in their reliance on a consistent narrative.

“Across historical periods, social movements have relied on public debate, discussion, and storytelling,” Jackson says. “We see the same thing today.” 

Jackson defines storytelling in a social justice movement as any action that finds a “rhetorically compelling” way to make a clear argument that conveys the movement’s intentions. 

She cites pamphlets distributed before the Revolutionary War and open letters written by civil rights leaders as historical, storytelling actions that ultimately don’t look that different from online discourse happening today. In Jackson’s telling, these actions all communicate and share compelling ideas, thus building a narrative around a particular movement, while also inviting opposing discourse. By creating a forceful argument with direct language and a sustained narrative, methods to join in and take action also become clear. Those looking to get involved now possess a shared vocabulary about what a movement represents and demands, which they can then also share with others. 

Shireen Nori, senior U.S. digital campaigner for 350.org who helped organize September’s Global Climate Strikes, agrees that storytelling is important, especially in the digital sphere. 

“People connect through stories. If you don’t have the opportunity to go and knock on people’s doors, you need to strategically communicate on the platforms available to you,” Nori says. “We want people to feel like they’re a part of something. In order to create an access point, we need to consistently and persistently tell a story.” 

For effective storytelling on social media platforms, there are a number of tactics that can be especially effective, according to Jackson, Foucault Welles, and Nori.  

Jackson suggests emboldening others to add their own story to the larger narrative when tweeting or sharing, as #MeToo did. To do this, you might share your own experience when posting about a relevant topic, or share other applicable news stories or personal testimonials that you can back up. In doing so, you can utilize the speed of the internet to do the storytelling work that Jackson says aided past movements. Ultimately, this means that personal stories can spread quickly while still furthering the movement’s central message. This can be especially effective on social media sites like Twitter, which allow for threads so that the core of an original argument can exist alongside newer posts, thus keeping the primary narrative top-of-mind, Jackson says.

Additionally, Foucault Welles notes that their upcoming research finds that stringing together multiple hashtags in tweets, like listing black female victims of policy brutality with #SayHerName, makes ignoring injustice increasingly difficult. Even for those encountering an individual tweet, writing off police violence as an isolated incident becomes harder because multiple instances of the same phenomenon are presented within one post, Foucault Welles explains. This crafts a mini story within each post by linking together individual stories into a larger narrative about police brutality. 

Nori also suggests that pairing your digital messaging with people-focused visuals can help craft a story online by building “heart” for a movement. For instance, when FridaysForFuture posts about weekly Friday school strikes happening around the world, they often do so by retweeting pictures of youth activists holding homemade signs demanding climate action. 

You can replicate what worked for Nori by sharing photos of individuals, posting graphic design visuals featuring people, or encouraging supporters to upload their own people-focused pictures from events like strikes or protests on their social media accounts. 

Visual components of a post should extend the movement’s core beliefs, though. For Nori, this means centering visuals on the people most immediately impacted by the climate crisis.

Lift up impacted voices

When crafting a narrative online, Nori stresses that who’s telling the story can matter as much as the story itself. For those organizing around a social justice cause that impacts real people, the voices of those impacted should dictate a campaign’s rhetoric since those closest to the problem can also offer solutions that uplift everyone, she says. 

This should be done in a way that doesn’t unduly burden, or tokenize, those telling their stories. As a youth climate activist told Mashable in October, tokenization can stall progress for social movements by relying on those impacted by a particular problem without actually supporting them. If those impacted were actually supported, the whole movement could benefit, as Nori saw firsthand. 

In her digital campaigning for the Global Climate Strike, which was estimated to be the largest climate protest ever, Nori says she worked to ensure that the voices of those most impacted by climate change were also getting amplified the most. For instance, when she needed to distribute information about a Bay Area climate strike, she says she called on her contacts in the area — black, Indigenous, and other youths of color involved with a Bay Area activist network Youth vs. Apocalypse — to write about their own experiences with climate injustice for online resources distributed before the event. This allowed for individuals to directly tell their own stories online, which Nori views as crucial, while also potentially making even more people feel welcome at the strike. Those attending the Bay Area event then heard directly from the activists who wrote about their experiences, thus amplifying their voices even more.

Denise Beek, chief communications officer for the the advocacy organization founded by Tarana Burke that fueled the viral #MeToo Movement, employed similar tactics while helping to build Burke’s 2006 vision into a nonprofit with a full staff. 

Burke’s nonprofit, which focuses on supporting survivors of sexual violence, is survivor-led and survivor-focused. Beek says this is crucial in informing the organization’s priorities and partnerships. 

When the organization toured historically black colleges and universities in April 2019 to discuss sexual violence, Beek and her team spoke to survivors on each campus, helping them lead conversations at the events and online. By putting those most impacted by sexual violence at the forefront of the conversation, the campus tours fostered a welcoming environment, which then led to further digital communication between the nonprofit and campus organizers after the events, Beek says. 

“You have to look at who’s not at the table,” Beek says. “There’s a lot of privilege in being able to enter communities that are not your own. We wanted to be engaged and listen really intently to our communities, to best serve them.” 

To use the effective tactics employed by Nori and Beek’s respective organizations, Foucault Welles says that individuals can build impactful relationships online by intentionally following a wide variety of people outside of your direct community on sites like Twitter, and then engaging regularly with their posts by also commenting when sharing or retweeting. Doing so, Foucault Welles says, creates a continual discourse between communities.

“You don’t just jump on Twitter when something is happening,” Foucault Welles says. “You need to be in regular conversation with others.” 

Foucault Welles also emphasizes letting vulnerable communities know they can always remain anonymous when sharing their stories. In doing so, she says you can promote a story or movement without jeopardizing the livelihoods of those impacted. To do so, open up your direct messages during a time of crisis and then anonymously share personal stories from those impacted (with their consent). In this way you’ll directly promote the stories of others to a different, potentially larger audience, says Foucault Welles. 

“There are so many beautiful examples of people protecting those who need it,” Foucault Welles says. 

Employ online activism both before and after on-the-ground action 

The Global Climate Strike exemplifies how much power people have when utilizing online organizing methods to bring people to the streets: Protesters from all around the world were able to stay connected online before, during, and after the strikes. Similarly, everyone Mashable spoke with agreed that online organizing is most effective when coupled with other, offline actions. 

“People can do one thing without the other,” Nori says. “But the real people power comes from when those two things merge.” 

Nori says online tools were crucial in mobilizing the estimated 6 million people that participated in the week of strikes worldwide, but the team was intentional in using online and offline tools in a complementary fashion. Digital materials, like email blasts, led to sign-up forms in which people could commit to strike. At the strikes, volunteers with iPads then signed those in attendance up for future online communication. 

Making sure people extend the work from a single action — like an email sign-up or protest — to the online sphere relies on using language that makes it clear that you’re there to support others, Nori says. She suggests saying things like “What are the tools and resources that you need?” or “Here’s an opportunity for us to support you,” in posts, emails, or direct messages. 

Even if you’re not involved at an organizational level like Nori, you could use these tactics after attending a march or protest with a friend. A quick text or direct message thanking them for coming could go a long way in encouraging them to stay involved online in the future, especially if you make it clear that you’ll support them in doing so, as Nori did.

Ultimately, digital tools available today can continue to build a new wave of promising activism when the offline and online merge. 

“Even when the path is not paved for them, people can resist. People can demand to be heard,” Jackson says. “The hero isn’t the technology. The heroes are the people using it.”  

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