Teens Adapt To Rise In Online Activism

By Regina Roberts and Tryphena Awuah
Alexandria, Va. and Columbus, Ohio

Before social media, an activist was of-ten thought of as a protester or as an active participant in an organization. But social media has given all of its users a platform in which to voice their opinions, changing our perception of what an activist is. Instagram infographics have grown increasingly popular as a way to speak out against issues and bring awareness to peers. 

“Within my community, it has become more of a norm to post about issues you feel passionate about,” said Joyce Kim, 17, of La Cañada, Calif. “Personally, I used to be intimidated by activism but the pandemic and Instagram made me realize that you can participate in small ways.” This accessibility is part of the appeal of online activism, which al-lows everyone to readily communicate with their audience. Alexsis Tapia, 16, from River-dale, Md., said that social media activism “combats the stigma of adolescents not knowing enough to get involved and has al-lowed them to speak out.”

Because many users may only hear one perspective, they can easily be exposed to misinformation, as we have seen with claims of election fraud in 2020. This makes fact-checking essential. But the practice can be exhausting, with the flow of endless information making some, like Baby Cornish, 17, of Frederick, Md., want to “forego social media altogether.”

On Instagram, it’s all about the aesthetic: colors, fonts, and even the song playing in the background of a post. “Insta-gram has molded activism in an aesthetically pleasing type of way,” said Les-lie Nevarez, 18. Nevarez, who is from Brownsville, Texas, says that the actual information is often sec-ondary to eye-catching, bite-sized infographics, which contribute to the rise of performative activ-ism and make the harsh realities of the world seem like trends. “Before I post something on social media I make sure of two things: that it’s kind and informative,” she said. 

What really happens after we post? How can we know if we impacted someone at all? While on-line activism can be an easy starting point, Nevarez feels the real change comes from offline activism. Her city, Brownsville, has been hesitant in accepting the LGBTQ+ community, but it does have an organization that created a pride flag in June 2020 to place on its welcome sign. The flag only lasted a day before someone took it down and replaced it with “no LGBTQ” in spray paint.  This June, those who created the flag protested and organized events to reinstate it. Their efforts were successful and the flag remains on the welcome sign.

“If it hadn’t been for social media and those in-dividuals per-sisting,” Neva-rez said, “we wouldn’t have reached mem-bers of the community to create change.” Social media can also bol-ster local and nat ionw ide movement s , such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. These social justic initiatives have been amplified by social media and have brought about awareness across the country. Online activism has been a valu-able medium for activist organizations, although Nevarez believes that it alone can only accomplish so much.

News reaches members of the younger generation through their Instagram feeds faster than their television screens. With this overflow of information on global, national, and local issues, some social media users feel pressured not only to keep up, but to repost and spread awareness to appear in-formed. 

For teenagers like Kim, the pressure to post on social media is about keeping her audience informed on issues that do not receive extensive news coverage. In March, following the Atlanta spa shootings, Kim said that she was disheartened by the lack of awareness among her followers on social media. Many, she noticed,  glossed over the issue or ignored it alto-gether. During this time, she felt pressure to post. “If I don’t voice my opinion on this,” she recalled thinking, “then who will?” Posting about it online, she said, “has helped me find my voice as an advocate.”

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