Apparent Separation or Concise Teamwork: Traditional vs. Social Media Activism

The roots of strong and apparent activism can be traced back to Martin Luther King Jr. in his quest for civil rights in the United States. Using a traditional form of activism–marching–Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most pivotal leaders in putting an end to legal segregation.

But is contemporary activism as successful as traditional activism once was? Traditional activism is still prominent today, but a new form of activism known as social media activism or, “slacktivism,” has taken a leading role on the activist stage. “Slacktivism” has taken large amounts of flack for its methods, since all it relies on is the click of a button to count as making a difference, and it does not include the physical act of protest or gathering.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder as well as a published writer, poet, and editor, knows firsthand how traditional and social media activism work, separately and together. McFadyen-Ketchum worked as an election observer in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, has been a part of numerous women’s rights movements, as well as being one of the key players and leaders in the recent Ferguson, Missouri marches.

McFadyen-Ketchum was drawn to the Ferguson marches due to the fact that they were organized by the NAACP, and he saw them as an opportunity to physically become involved, but he did not discover his role within the marches until he had arrived and became actively involved. “One thing was tweeting about it. I discovered that people wanted me to tweet because they wanted to know what’s going on,” McFadyen-Ketchum stated. This instance combined the traditional activist tool of marching, with a form of social media activism, tweeting to inform the public. But, McFadyen-Ketchum believes his biggest contribution to the movement was his physical presence, especially his race, being a standout as the minority race in a movement for the rights of colored people. “The more I went, the more I discovered that I was a ‘white ally.’ When you’re out there marching, you’re putting your body to work, and as a white person to do that in this [Ferguson] situation is dangerous.”

This sense of danger and sacrifice highlights just what Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, best selling author, and writer for The New Yorker, highlights about the downfalls of social media activism in his article, “Small Change.” Gladwell states that, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

Aida Chavez, a double major in journalism and political science at Arizona State University studying these concepts, firmly believes that social media activism has become an easier option to advance one’s interests than traditional activism. Chavez states,”One factor that contributes to social media activism being lazier and simpler is because the internet lacks the permanence and the physical mobility that traditional activism embodies. Another reason is because of how public and social norm driven social media is, the internet allows people to form a façade, a caricature of who they want to be. This façade allows people to join in on hashtags and trends to give the appearance of awareness, decency, and intelligence.”

McFadyen-Ketchum agrees with Gladwell’s statement to an extent, stating that, “If all you’re doing is getting on Facebook and Twitter and yacking, then nothing is happening. But if you’re out there doing things in your or somebody else’s community, then that seems pretty smart to me. I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” McFadyen-Ketchum feels compelled to physically partake in the causes he is passionate about, but not without utilizing the tools of social media activism.

This teamwork between traditional activism and social media activism is what Jillian C. York, a free-expression activist, journalist, and travel writer, says is success in her article, “The False Poles of Traditional and Digital Activism.” York states that, “Traditional activism is indeed enhanced by digital tools,” and McFadyen-Ketchum agrees that a clear separation of the two forms of activism would be pointless. He states that, “You have to use your body. Your words are valuable, but you don’t really know what you’re talking about, and you can only get so educated, unless you’re there. But why wouldn’t you use social media while you’re there?”

Aida Chavez agrees that the best way to utilize the tools of activism is to use a combination of traditional and social media. Chavez asserts that, “Social media cannot act on its own,” due to the fact that, “The internet is too ingrained in human life now, and it works as a wonderful tool, but physical sacrifice and organization on political and social levels is needed to create tangible results.”

Although social media activism has received some very negative comments, it can be used as an essential element when combined with traditional activism. Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum confidently states that, “You have to have both. I don’t feel comfortable preaching until I’m there.” And Aida Chavez says that she herself would utilize the two together, remarking that she, “would combine the two: spread awareness and motivate people on social media, use it as a form of communication between allies, then physically peacefully protest.”

The future of social media activism looks grim on its own, but when combined with traditional activism, real change can be made.

Day 1 of the Ferguson Marches: Courtesy of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Day 1 of the Ferguson Marches: Courtesy of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

McFadyen-Ketchum in Tent City, Downtown Kiev during Ukraine's Orange Revolution

McFadyen-Ketchum in Tent City, Downtown Kiev during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution

To see a video from the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, click this link:

To see more of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s journey as he travels to Baltimore, Maryland with the NAACP, follow him on twitter: @AndrewMKdotcom


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