Urupong via iStock
Urupong via iStock

“Do not be a passive follower of reparations, mutual aid, or redistribution accounts,” reads an International Indigenous Youth Council Instagram post, originally created by @atxreparations. “Many mutual aid accounts have been dealing with a simultaneous increase in following and decrease in engagement.”

Sentiments similar to the one expressed have echoed across social media, particularly from activists, public intellectuals, and advocates who find themselves with ever-growing follower counts and engagement rates, but are left wondering if those metrics can be translated into sustained action.

While activism on social media is not new, 2020 became a “summer of digital protest” as companies, “influencers,” and individuals alike took to social media to share support and information. “Social justice slideshows,” which had already existed prior, notably proliferated across Instagram. Originally circulating content around anti-Black racism and the pandemic, posts have grown to include possibly any topic you can think of from the farmer protests in India to ecofascism

Anti-Racism Daily is one such account behind these slideshows. In the midst of protests against police brutality and for Black Lives Matter, Nicole Cardoza founded Anti-Racism Daily, which began as a newsletter for friends wanting to engage more with what was happening at the time. 

“Oftentimes people were looking for that one-time thing: what bail fund should I donate to, what petition should I sign,” Cardoza said in an interview with NowThis. “I really wanted to have an opportunity to hold people accountable for dismantling racism over time.”

However, the question remains: Does social media activism lead to practical, sustainable action?

For many of the activists, intellectuals, and organizations who have gained thousands, and sometimes millions, of new followers, their work began long before their online profiles became popular.

“I am so sick of continuing to see so many activists and organizers — especially “famous” movement leaders — who *say* they are committed to disability justice and then don’t do the BARE MINIMUM,” transformative and disability justice educator and trainer Mia Mingus wrote in an Instagram post in November. “I am tired of my posts about access being ‘liked’ and shared hundreds of times, with no action. Over it.” 

Mingus has worked for over a decade to create and amplify the disability justice framework, forward pod mapping for transformative justice work and develop curriculum for understanding accountability.

In Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, Zeynep Tufekci argued that the pre-internet era “acclimatized people to the processes of collective decision making and helped create the resilience all movements need to survive and thrive in the long term.” This resiliency may be more difficult to achieve in the “digitally networked public sphere” where information and attention can rapidly spread, but potentially without the tactical planning needed to sustain action.

However, homeless outreach and advocacy organization, Ktown for All, has tactfully used social media as a tool to hold officials accountable and engage with constituents, serving as a political home beyond social media activism.

“We got a spike in engagement once we started posting about People’s Budget LA,” said Jane Nguyen, a co-founder of Ktown for All. “Our success [on social media] has a lot to do with our ability to be authentic and unfiltered … the response has been really encouraging and in some ways, I feel responsible for the level of influence we have.”

Nguyen said she is conscious about coordinating which calls to action she shares on social media versus those she may circulate with members internally instead. Ultimately, she hopes “educating people about how local government affects policies” will spur people to contact their representatives and “connect with mutual aid and organizing efforts in their own neighborhood.”  

As Tufekci also noted, “Symbolic action online is not necessarily without power.” Challenging calls of performative activism and slacktivism, Tufekci cites an “erroneous understanding of the relationship of people to the internet … as if the internet constituted a separate space, like the digital reality in the movie Matrix that real people could plug into.”

People have to learn and unlearn ideas somewhere. Increasingly, that happens through social media and the internet.

Two years ago, a group of people came together in Fremont, California, a suburb in the Bay Area, to push forward more progressive ideals at the city and district level.

“When it came to matters like police on campuses, I would have these conversations in 2018 and I would just hit roadblock after roadblock,” said Antonio Birbeck-Herrera, a founding member of Engage Fremont, a progressive coalition organizing in the city. They were often told that agendas were full and that issues of policing did not affect Fremont. “People knew it was an issue, but weren’t willing to look at it.”

When protesting for Black Lives Matter began in Fremont early June, the topic of policing and school resource officers (SROs) resurfaced in conversations and online. Engage Fremont used social media to share information about alternatives to policing and circulated calls to pressure the city’s school board to re-evaluate police presence on high school campuses. They also advocated to reallocate the $838,000 annual cost of the SRO program towards mental health resources instead. Currently, organizers are still fighting for the program’s official removal, despite the recommendations from the school board’s SRO Task Force to end the program and the original board decision.

With police abolition in the dominant discourse, Birbeck-Herrera saw a change in how people understood what they had been advocating for. “The key thing is understanding those institutions within your local community, so that at a later point you can apply the right amount of leverage at the right time,” they said. “You can plan ahead, so you’re not just reacting to the moment.”

From building accessible spaces to paying land taxes to urban Indigenous land trusts and organizing in a local community, Birbeck-Herrera added, “On the social media, it can be very alluring to believe that ‘likes’ are organizing. I think it’s an absolutely necessary and relevant component of it, but it can’t stop there. It has to be built on relationships and conversations as opposed to solely this one-way approach of here’s a post, you liked it.”

Kitty Hu is a Chinese American filmmaker and visual journalist with roots in the Bay Area, California. Having grown up as the daughter of immigrants, Hu’s work amplifies stories at the intersection of...