When CBS Entertainment announced its new television show The Activist, the network was met with intense criticism from politically-minded internet users concerned that the show’s focus on social media activism would over-emphasize the efficacy of digital over direct physical action.

According to the CBS press release, the show, set for an October 2021 premiere, structured itself as a competition series in which participating “activists” would “compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action, now. The competing activists’ success is measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input.” The hosts for the series were announced to be celebrities Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough.

The initial backlash against the show originated from the point of contention between the show’s presumptive attention to committing real change while setting itself up for an environment in which social media influencers use digital activism as a tool to build a personal platform or social clout.

In an interview with MSNBC, anti-police-violence activist Britney Packnett Cunningham commented about what makes the environment of The Activist so dangerous for the future of activism. The co-founder of Campaign Zero, an initiative launched to focus policymaking on police reform, Cunningham stated that beyond the amounts of money being spent on the show’s production that could have easily been donated to charity, the show also “extends a societal belief about what a good activist looks like: someone who is ready for prime time, someone who fits a particular archetype and is great on social media and is perfectly marketable.”

Arab Spring Infobox collage from the MENA protests. Clockwise from the upper left corner: Protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt 9 February 2011;Habib Bourguiba Boulevard, protesters in Tunis, Tunisia 14 January 2011;dissidents in Sanaa, Yemen calling for president Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign on 3 February 2011;crowds of hundreds of thousands in Baniyas, Syria 29 April 2011. (C) Honor The King / Wikimedia Commons

Social Media as Activism: Lessons from Arab Spring

In the digital age, social media platforms have become an essential part of the activist’s tools, providing a self-publishing platform in which messages can spread quickly and easily. However, the efficacy of social media in helping solve issues of social justice is not only reliant on social contexts but on the hands operating the tool.

The Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010s are often referenced as the foundation for modern social media activism. Websites like Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in movements across the Middle and Near East by allowing the people of countries like Egypt and Tunisia to spread the message of their revolution without having to operate through state-regulated media. Locally, social media was used to organize protests, demonstrations and other physical activities. Globally, Facebook posts and tweets about state brutality and injustice spread across the international community and made it to the West, increasing global support for the Arab Spring revolutions.

Since almost a decade has passed since the Arab Spring, the circumstances in which social media can effectively perpetuate a social movement have changed. According to Daniel Durkin, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, the conditions of social media in the Arab Spring cannot be easily replicated in the most important modern social justice movements.

To trace the disparate uses of technology in social movements, Durkin looks to the ongoing push for Palestinian liberation. He noted the apparent differences between the Arab Spring and a free Palestine as they pertain to how social media can be utilized.

“Arab Spring was new, surprising, unexpected and captured the attention of the world,” Durkin said. “Everyone is already globally familiar with Palestine vs. Israel. Social media promotes revolution from the ground up when it is spontaneous and when it is new. It won’t be the same case for the Palestinians. They will both be using social media but phenomena and effect will be different.”

Palestinian liberation protest featuring members of Within Our Lifetime (C) Anwar Alomaisi / WOL

Within Our Lifetime: Palestinian Liberation and Social Media

The Palestinian struggle for liberation itself makes an excellent example of a social movement in which the use of social media as a tool has both advantages and disadvantages.

Nerdeen Kiswani, chair of the Brooklyn-based Palestinian activist organization Within Our Lifetime (WOL), spoke with Honeysuckle to discuss how social media has helped and hindered the forward momentum of their movement. According to Kiswani, the building blocks of WOL are focused on physically interacting with communities most affected by the Palestine-Israel conflict and exploring the impact this conflict has on those communities. As Kiswani said, “[WOL doesn’t] rely on social media. [However, in] this day and age, it doesn’t make sense not to use it. We use it to connect with and reach a wider audience.”

A dependency on social media can only let a movement grow so far, as Durkin described when explaining how movements can utilize social media. In the context of using media to spread a message, Durkin said, “When Message A is exhausted, Message B needs to supplant it, and the cycle continues. You can’t hit the same note every time and expect a response.” Social media dependency can lead to message fatigue, which does not motivate people to participate. According to Durkin, the best way to motivate is to display a movement physically with real gatherings of people, a strategy that WOL has employed to build their organization.

Kiswani explained WOL’s organizational building, stating, “[We] mainly focus on in-person activism and organizing… Instagram, and social media in general, serves an archival purpose. We like to archive and keep a record of what we do. We like to take photos of our actions and when we do something to inspire others and keep a record for ourselves.”

Social media as a tool for activist inspiration has been incredibly helpful in building local and global support for WOL, Kiswani said. In the early summer of 2021, the heightened social and mass media presence of the Palestine-Israel conflict quickly created greater support for WOL. Protests at the time saw greater numbers of participation, but attendance has since gradually dissipated. As Kiswani said:

“We’ve continued to mobilize. The number of attendees went down, but I think that the consciousness it raised in people remains there. While people may not be turning out for Palestine as much in numbers at protests, people are taking the lessons they learned over the summer… and bringing it back to their universities and student movements.”

However, Kiswami says social media presents adverse effects in more ways than one. The first one dilutes the meaning of social justice in favor of social media influencing.

“Sometimes, all these people will want to come out and post content to show that they were there,” she said. “That’s not what protesting is about. It’s about practicing our collective rage and power and coming together as a community to create a space for ourselves.”

Social Media Suppression of Palestinian Voices

The other negative effect, and why a reliance on social media for a movement as controversial as the one for Palestinian liberation, comes in the form of media suppression. When discussing this subject, Kiswani pointed to a few topics that the group could not post about on social media without putting their web pages at risk of getting shut down.

As Kiswani stated, posts about Palestinian revolutionary Leila Khaled, the village Sheikh Jarrah, and pictures of rubble relating to the prison break at Gilboa Prison would constantly get flagged by Instagram and removed for violating the company’s community guidelines. Kiswani said, “After that, it always says ‘Your account is at risk of getting deleted.’”

Based on WOL’s experiences with their posts being shut down, social media sites like Instagram and Facebook have shown themselves to be consistent in suppressing Palestinian voices. But this suppression, Kiswani said, also opens the door for further opportunities in using social media as activism.

“We see the irony in using the very same social media that silenced us to also call itself out,” Kiswani said. WOL is fully aware that social media corporations play a hand in suppressing Palestinian voices. However, the organization manages to use that pattern to its advantage. With evidence of this abuse, WOL can turn suppression into action, urging people to contact and call out the media companies.

Kiswani concludes, “Social media is a fleeting moment that needs to be turned into something bigger because it’s not something we can rely on.”  

Among simply allowing a movement to reach more people, social media allows for growth in which actual knowledge can turn into support, people of different movements with similar ideals can join forces, and online presence can manifest itself in mass media discussion.

Consequently, using social media as the only method of growing a movement can lead to mixed messaging and make it difficult to identify the central base of a movement’s key organizations.


Featured image: The Save Sheikh Jarrah Protest in London, May 2021 (C) Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona