Social Media, Social Movements, and Social Change: The Case of 2021 Palestinian Online Activism

Social media has become an inseparable part of our life. The last decade showed how social media affects many things, including the trajectory of social movements. This essay argues that social media has not fundamentally changed the power and reach of social movements to bring about social change. Indeed, social media have a crucial role in organising physical protests and constructing emotions and collective identity. However, to reach their demands, social movements still need other resources that social media cannot provide. In addition, social media also creates slacktivism which could lower physical support participation. This paper will briefly examine a study case from the Palestinian movement in the mid of 2021 to show how social media activism is still unsuccessful in initiating necessary social change.

The nature of social media allows information to reach many people only quickly. This characteristic provides vast benefits for social movements. Activists can spread information regarding recent social problems and call for action from online audiences. Furthermore, activists can coordinate the technicalities of the demonstration, such as the place, time, list of demands, etc. This makes organising movements a lot easier with the possibility of attracting large audiences to go on the streets. For example, revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring utilised ‘Facebook to set the date, Twitter to share logistics, Youtube to show the world, all to connect people’ (Cohen, 2011, cited in Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 3). News outlets worldwide frequently praised recent social movements for their ‘transformative’ character using technologies, including social media (Juris, 2012).

In addition to its technical function, social media also plays a vital role in forming emotions and collective identity. In transferring information, activists also use words, photos, and videos to trigger the audience’s emotions, such as anger towards social injustice. This emotion could encourage people to take further action at the individual level, including joining protests (Breuer et al., 2015). In addition, information that provokes negative emotions tend to circulate more quickly because “‘anger and anxiety as emotional states of heightened physiological arousal are key in driving social transmission and diffusion” (Berger and Milkman, 2012, cited in Breuer et al., 2015, p. 768). Sharing the same anger with your online friends could lead to a sense of togetherness on the issue, thus creating the collective identity to voice the same concern. In 2020, the shocking video of police brutality towards George Floyd sparked online waves of anger and resulted in street protests in many parts of the world.

While social media undoubtedly changes how social movements organise and mobilise emotions, questions still arise on the impact of social change that the protest advocates. Malchik (2019) highlighted how mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street were unsustainable even though they first gathered quickly. Lack of resilience and lost orientation diminished their capability to push for change (Malchik, 2019). Furthermore, Egypt revolution 2011 demonstrators failed to take power from the old dictator because the movement was mobilised using social media and lacked the political resources to control the state (Bayat, 2017).

These cases show the crucial need for proper leadership and organisational structure to maintain the movement and eventually deliver change. Current social movements–that organise through social media–often have decentralised networks and leaderless leadership (Juris, 2012). If we look at the old social movements, they tend to have a single and charismatic leader–for instance, Nelson Mandela in South Africa–that could lead and unite the movement. Meanwhile, recent social movements prefer horizontal collaboration rather than vertical hierarchies (Juris, 2012). While this type of movement also provides benefits, such as adaptability to local contexts, it also contains weaknesses because it lacks the structure to create institutional change (Jenkins, 1983). For instance, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2021–which saw a high level of social media activism and physical demonstrations–has been praised for successfully enacting social change, especially in the US. However, as Hu (2020) noted, the movement could sustain due to their pre-existing structure. BLM first initiated in 2014 and before 2020 has expanded as an organisation with clear and particular demands (Hu, 2020). In addition, the movement’s objective could be maintained because of the higher-ups’ strict control (Hu, 2020). Hence, the success of BLM to instigate social change resulted from social media and the resources they had before.

The other concern regarding social media activism is what is usually called ‘slacktivism’. It is the act of activism–usually, through social media–that has a limited social or political impact but creates an impression of having contributed to the movement, even when they only do little action such as joining a Facebook group (Morozov, 2011, cited in Gerbaudo, 2012). In other words, people participate in social media activism because they do not have to sacrifice anything. Social media activism only requires the audience to like, comment, or share a campaign, unlike physical demonstrations that require time, energy, and even money to participate. While it is a good thing to engage with the social justice discourse in social media, slacktivism could be harmful to the movement because people feel satisfied with their online ‘contribution’, thus discouraging them from going to the streets. This is also related to the concept of free riders. In the context of large movements, rather than paying the cost (time, energy, money), it would be more reasonable for individuals to restrain from participating and just look forward to the result (Weismuller, 2012).

This essay will draw an example from Palestine social media activism in mid-2021. Israel forcibly evicted the resident of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem and attacked Gaza for eleven days, killing more than 250 people (Patel, 2021). Responding to this escalation, Palestinian activists started the #SaveSheikhJarrah campaign on social media. The campaign has transformed to become one of the most significant solidarity movements in Palestine activism history. Like BLM, Palestinian activists tried to shift narratives on the Israel-Palestine matter through social media, emphasising that Israel is an apartheid regime and settler colonialism (Gil, 2021). Many public figures showed support for Palestine freedom, something that had never happened before (Mansoor, 2021). In addition to online support, demonstrations were held in many cities worldwide, including Palestine itself.

Social media has a very crucial role in this online activism. Circulating videos of Israel’s atrocities helped the world understand the reality Palestinians faced daily, inciting anger towards Israel. Activists underlined that the use of social media means that mass media can no longer control the narratives about Palestine (Yee and Naggar, 2021). Social media has also become the medium to organise physical demonstrations by activists in many parts of the world. Given the unprecedented level of support, many believed there could be a fundamental change towards the Palestinian cause. However, the demonstrations and social media activism did not last long. Hence, social changes that were demanded, such as sanctions against Israel, suspension of US aid, and end of the occupation and blockade of Gaza, failed to be achieved (Mansoor, 2021).

Aside from other factors such as the influence of Israel lobbies and censorship from social media companies (Alsaafin, 2021), the movement emerged from social media without a single leader and a lack of pre-existing organisational structure. The social media activism was led by famous youth figures on the platform, such as Mohammed El-Kurd and Muna El-Kurd that made the Sheikh Jarrah eviction video viral. In addition, the demonstrations in Palestine were also primarily driven by the youth generation, frustrated by the political elite that was seen as clueless (Al Tahhan, 2021). Thus, the movement was highly decentralised, with key figures in social media speaking in their terms and demonstrations were organised separately in each city. Furthermore, the conversation about Palestine on social media was robust, with Palestine-related content gaining thousands of likes and retweets. However, seeing that the demonstrations were short-lived–only in less than one month, the number of people willing to pay the cost, going to the street and pressuring the government to pass policy change was far less than the online support. This suggests that slacktivism and free-riders existed to some extent, but further research needs to be done.

In conclusion, this essay argues that social media has not fundamentally changed the power and reach of social movements to create social change. This essay does not neglect social media’s importance and transformative role in organising technicalities of physical demonstrations and constructing collective identities. Social media activism also has successfully raised awareness and embedded knowledge of social justice matters to the public. However, social movements need to mobilise other resources to deliver social change, particularly mobilising organisation structures capable of executing the change. This structure is lacking from social movements that emerged from social media activism, not to mention the likelihood of slacktivism weakening physical demonstrations. Finally, this essay does not try to cast gloomy stances towards social media role in social movements. This essay believes that they could complement each other. Still, an over-optimistic view of social media could be harmful to the movement because it overlooks real-world issues that should be addressed.

This essay was written for the final assignment on Social Change, Culture and Development and was published here with minor editing.


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Sayyid AM

Sayyid AM


International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada