On the day I was scheduled to interview for a position with the White House National Security Council, I found out that my interview would have to be rescheduled due to the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Even as activists in Tahrir Square were using Twitter and other social media to mobilize a large-scale revolution for democracy and human rights, Mubarak had “shut down” the internet and jailed Egyptian bloggers to crush dissent. Since then, I have been fascinated by the role of social media as an organizing tool, even as I remain cautious about the role of government censorship and surveillance capitalism. From the subsequent uprisings in the Middle East to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements in the United States to the role of social media in the Ukraine-Russia information war today, it has become apparent that social media is a powerful tool for both those who seek to enhance and those who seek to limit freedom
Through the Council on Foreign Relations’ roundtable series, I was fortunate to speak with Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor at Northeastern University and coauthor of #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, and Meighan Stone, former adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and coauthor of Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, about how marginalized groups use their social media platforms to advocate for societal improvements. While Foucault Welles focuses on digital social justice activism in the United States and Stone focuses on women’s rights activism around the world, both authors observe striking commonalities in their work; namely, that while digital activism has the potential to create transformative and concrete change, there exist a plethora of factors that can limit hashtag activism’s efficacy.
Foucault Welles provided some insights as to how hashtag activism influences mainstream media coverage, representing a “transformative opportunity to inject new narratives or to change the narratives and the way we talk about things.” The activists at the center of these digital campaigns are incredibly important. While some not familiar with social justice campaigns might believe that movements like Black Lives Matter erupted spontaneously during the summer of 2020, Foucault Welles reminded us that this is not the case. In fact, activists tend to operate in digital networks that overlap with social justice movements that have a presence “on the ground,” allowing activists to learn and develop effective strategies to spread their message. As a result, each subsequent movement grows larger and gathers steam more quickly.