Activism has exploded on the internet. How much difference it makes depends on whom you ask.
Story by Callie Quinn-Ward and Ari Tandan | Photos by Finn Hawley-Blue
On a warm July afternoon, a crowd of a few hundred gathered in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square for a Black Lives Matter protest. Days after the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in a suburb of Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., a number of people across Portland felt compelled to join.
They took to the streets, blocking downtown traffic and shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace.” The crowd came to a halt at the Justice Center, where speakers took the stage to demand reform.
In an instant, the Grant students and alumna remember the mood changing. “It was like someone flipped a switch,” recalls Campbell. “Half the crowd just parted like the Red Sea, and people were just sprinting away.”
Amidst the confusion, Campbell and Valle decided to run. Passing armored police vehicles, they made it a few blocks away from the scene.
It wasn’t until Campbell glanced at her Facebook feed that she realized someone had pulled a gun at the rally. A right-wing Trump supporter had been waving the weapon around, claiming he felt threatened by the protest.
Despite the chaos, one thing was clear about the events of that summer night: smartphones documented everything that happened, and social media allowed thousands of others to participate.
It’s an example of how the Internet has become a dominant force in the lives of young people. With most teenagers plugged into a social network, they are experiencing connectivity that hasn’t been seen before.
Access to information and what’s happening in the news is readily available. It’s difficult to avoid discussions around current events on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.
For some, social media has provided a platform to find a cause that interests them and figure out how to advocate for it. “All this information is so much more accessible now, so it’s a lot easier to get involved,” says Alice Fischer, a Grant senior and activist for Planned Parenthood.
Movements like Black Lives Matter have taken part in the phenomenon, bringing topics of racial injustice and police brutality to the forefront with the help of hashtag campaigns that go viral within hours. “Social media has definitely amplified the attention of racism,” says Ashton Allen, a Grant sophomore who uses Instagram and Twitter to express his political views.
Social media activism has been primarily spearheaded by millennials sharing articles, signing petitions and organizing events within the sphere of social networks.
Grant students are no exception. They advocate for causes ranging from the environment to LGBTQ rights, and social media presents a way to discuss controversial topics online. It also helps promote change, students say.
“Using social media as a platform is so important,” says Campbell, who runs an Instagram account dedicated to discussing feminism. “I definitely think it can be effective.”
But critics say the increased reliance on social media as a tool for change has its drawbacks. Dubbed “slacktivism,” some are unconvinced of social media’s ability to have any meaningful impact.
“Some people might say that they don’t accomplish anything. Or more specifically, that social media perhaps provide a brief spark to a cause,” says Matthew Pittman, a communications Ph.D candidate at University of Oregon who studies social media. “But then the flame burns out when our attention moves on to the next thing.”
Madison Moskowitz, a Grant graduate who is a senior at the University of Oregon, says she can attest to this. “I don’t think I’ve ever changed someone’s mind on Twitter,” says Moskowitz, who heads the College Democrats at the university. “It goes to show that direct action, going door-to-door, protesting … that is the best way to show that you do actually care.”
Pittman describes a psychological effect that causes people to believe they’re fulfilling their role as an activist through small tasks like sharing a social media post on the Internet. “We do a small thing and make ourselves feel good, so we don’t do the larger good thing,” he says. “So while it has never been easier to get involved with a cause in a superficial way, that doesn’t necessarily always translate into real world action.”
“It’s a way to communicate with people and raise awareness. You gotta do more. You can’t just talk on Facebook but not do anything in person” – Brianna Henderson
Throughout American history, many major protest movements have been youth-driven. High school and college students have funneled their collective energy into staging walkouts, demonstrations and rallies.
One of the earliest cases of large-scale youth activism was the 1903 Children’s Crusade. Organized by Community Activist Mary Harris Jones, 200 child laborers from a Pennsylvania textile mill marched to New York to demand better protections and increased safety for child workers. Although unsuccessful, the crusade brought child labor issues to the forefront and created momentum for a national conversation.
Decades later, the civil rights era beginning in the 1950s solidified the role of youth as change makers. As segregation prevailed across the country, high school and college students staged massive protests.
In 1960, four black college students began a protest by sitting down at an all-white lunch counter in a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, NC. It led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. One of the most prominent organizations of the civil rights movement, the SNCC oversaw freedom rides and voter registration drives throughout the South.
In 1963, 250,000 public school students in Chicago participated in a one-day walkout. A year later, 450,000 black and Latino students in New York City organized an anti-segregation demonstration.
Coinciding with the push for civil rights were the anti-Vietnam War and counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s. One of the key players in the formation of the “New Left” was Students for a Democratic Society, which advocated for student mobilization.
Fueled by youthful passion, large-scale demonstrations against U.S. Cold War policy erupted across the nation. College campuses became a focal point for the protest movement.
At Grant, Dick Fulmer of the class of 1963 recalls these issues dominating the atmosphere during his time in high school. But overt activism was rare as most students were occupied with following the news and forming opinions. “High school students…were relatively naïve about what was going on,” Fulmer recalls.
A tiny population of students of color meant the civil rights movement didn’t come to fruition at Grant. However, during this time, students did push for curriculum and education reform.
“I think the activism as it related to these events, it really was in the form of changing the curriculum at Grant,” he says. “There was a movement to help expand how kids would learn.”
Ray Leary, a long-time Portland resident and co-founder of Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI) who graduated from Jefferson High School in 1972, can recall how the Black Power movement influenced students. He remembers black students increasingly wearing their hair in afros and demanding more racial equity. “The first thoughts of empowerment really began to seed while I was in high school,” says Leary. Youth activism in the 1990s and beyond encompassed more issues. Students and groups took on a range of causes like education funding, standardized testing and sweatshop labor.
Doug Winn, who taught at Grant from 1986 to 2008, oversaw the Amnesty Club. He remembers students writing the word “Peace” in several languages on a poster at Grant in 2002.
“Someone had complained that this was disrespectful to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time,” Winn recalls.
In response, the group wrote the word on masking tape and covered their mouths with it, catching the attention of local news stations.
“Grant always had a strong number of students who not only want to make the world a better place, but they take action to make that happen,” says Winn, who has been involved with Grant for nearly 30 years.
In recent years, the Internet has taken center stage when it comes to activism.
Take, for example, the group Anonymous. Known as a “hacktivist” organization, members have used computer technology to hack into systems controlled by groups ranging from the Islamic State to the Church of Scientology. They’ve also targeted high-profile credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard.
The group’s goal? To perform cyber attacks and push campaigns aimed to diminish censorship, corporate greed and surveillance by governments.
In the Middle East, social media played a critical role in unveiling the truth behind the Arab Spring uprisings, bringing the issues of government oppression and violence to the world stage. Smartphones in hand, young Egyptian and Tunisian protesters took to the streets, broadcasting the protests to the world via social media as thousands gathered to overthrow dictators.
Pittman says social media can be effective, especially at times when it comes to mobilizing against a common opponent. “Social media lets people unite quickly around a cause,” he says. “In examples like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, protesters can share information, news or video in real time to draw our collective attention to where important things are happening.”
“As important as I think it is and as much as I value social media and activism, there is a definite line that needs to be drawn” – Iris Campbell
Grant history teacher Don Gavitte helped organize the fledgling “Get Upset” movement in 2012, which was designed to protest major budget cuts across the Portland Public Schools district. “They were going to cut school funding to a point where things were going to be, essentially, directly illegitimate,” says Gavitte.
He remembers joining Facebook because it would help him orchestrate the initial protest events.
Thousands of students and parents filled Pioneer Courthouse Square and marched to City Hall. Eventually, local politicians and others agreed to help stave off the proposed cuts.
Grant alumna Moskowitz remembers how it felt to make a difference. “They decided to not cut that $5 million, not cut those teachers,” Moskowitz says. “Students showing up and saying that we value this, it makes change.”
These days, students are seeing a blend of using the Internet and in-person activism to take stands. Chinn and student government leaders organized “Speak Out” week two years ago, in which students detailed their experiences with bullying. The campaign encouraged students to use the hashtag #speakout.
Last year, Race Forward – school-wide talks that focused on the effects of racism – involved discussions in every classroom. The talks were led by the student and staff equity teams after a racist incident involving social media with the boys’ soccer team last year.
In late September, many members of the Royal Blues took a knee while singing the national anthem at Grant’s homecoming football game. Inspired by San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the demonstration was meant to highlight systematic racial injustices and police brutality.
Conflicted on whether or not to stand, Valle, the choir president, shared her dilemma on social media prior to the game. “Since I didn’t have any other outlet to discuss it on, I posted it on Facebook,” she says. “It was the spark that started (the demonstration).”
Now, for a handful of current Grant students, social media is bridging the gap between only being interested in a cause and speaking out.
Campbell, who considers herself an activist for the rights of the LGBTQ community, feminism and racial justice, credits sites like Facebook and Tumblr for helping her gain awareness and begin protesting.
“I cannot stress how uneducated I was, how frankly problematic some of my views were before I became educated,” she says. “I started going to websites that bring stuff up about body shaming or rights for people of color, and I slowly learned. Now, it’s incredibly important to me.”
Brianna Henderson, a Grant senior and member of the Student Equity Team, mirrors that experience. “(Social media) is how I got so racially awoke,” she says. “I just read articles everyone was sharing and was like, ‘Oh, this is how I feel,’” she says.
Despite this trend, there is little consensus on whether quicker and easier access to information is resulting in a more socially and politically aware generation of teenagers.
“I think young people have the potential to be more informed,” says Pittman. “But not all young adults are the same … Some youth are going to want to stay informed on the topics that are important to them, so they can make critical and balanced decisions. And some are going to remain mostly ignorant, seeking out just enough information to confirm what they already believe.”
Grant students claim social media activism can be a powerful form of education for their peers and a way to prompt discussion. For many, having these kinds of conversations, whether in real life or on social media, is crucial.
“(Social media’s) most effective use is for education, kind of laying an issue out there and saying this is what’s going on, this is what we need to do to fix it,” says Campbell, who posts about issues regularly on Facebook and Instagram. “I think that’s incredibly useful because we all start out ignorant.”
Fischer believes social media has potential to not just educate people, but to engage others to join or create protests. With the ability to cast a wide invitation to an event through Facebook, word of a protest can spread quickly and gather a large number of attendees.
“Every rally I’ve ever been to was organized on social media, and the word gets out so well on Facebook and Instagram,” says Fischer. “Overall, it’s a really good force.”
Leary views the use of social media as a positive phenomenon. “I believe physical activism, negotiation and compromise is the only chance you have against structural change. But what you do have in the social media realm is the ability to influence thought, to influence opinion and to maybe change someone’s assessment of a situation or a dynamic.” he says.
Leary says that an increase in social media use has led to a diversification of issues and greater momentum. “The civil rights movement we were growing up with was the only game in town. It was a singular movement,” he says. “Now … you’re getting that cross pollination that wasn’t possible back in the day.”
Critics, though, argue the majority of online activism rarely translates in sustainable change.
“It has potential to raise awareness, but sometimes people think a click is all that is needed and that once they have made their voice heard, they have done their job,” says Scott Talan, a public communication professor at American University. “But with so many voices clamoring for attention, the message can be watered down. Words are one thing. Actions and accomplishments another.”
While Fischer thinks social media plays an important role in activism, she agrees there’s a feeling of a false sense of accomplishment among high school students. “So many people, because of social media, think that they’re so involved because they share an article or post some status about a cause they’re passionate about,” she says. “But I think in order to make a difference, you have to go a little farther than that.”
Some argue that anonymity and lack of personal connection across the Internet creates a harmful environment toward activism.
“If you can hide behind an anonymous mask, you can say whatever you want with no repercussions, and I think that it lets white supremacy and rape culture, all of this stuff, really fester,” says Moskowitz.
The pejorative term “social justice warrior,” abbreviated as SJW, has been tossed around to refer to people who advocate online for progressive issues.
Henderson has faced this particular insult but doesn’t dwell on it. “I’ll embrace it. Call me a social justice warrior,” she says. “I have actions to back up my words. I don’t just say that black lives matter. I go to protests. I’m part of (Black Student Union). I’m part of Equity Team. I’m doing something to try to change something.”
Others are convinced social media’s focus is too widespread. In the past, many of the most successful protests had a singular, powerful cause. Now, with social media, anyone can find something to get involved with, leading some to believe youth activism lacks a coherent message.
“When we discover more, we tend to absorb less,” says Pittman. “The Internet – and the many digital technologies we use to access it – has dramatically transformed our media diet into a massive buffet.”
Still, Grant students are adamant that this generation is highly engaged, and the use of social media is pushing causes under a spotlight.
“It’s a way to communicate with people and raise awareness,” Henderson adds. But she also concedes: “You gotta do more. You can’t just talk on Facebook but not do anything in person.”
Many agree that a balance needs to be met. “As important as I think it is and as much as I value social media and activism, there is a definite line that needs to be drawn,” says Campbell.
For her part, Chinn says nothing on social media can compare to what happened to her at the Black Lives Matter protest in July.
“I was part of a human wall we made to guard off the SWAT team, and we were all holding hands,” she recalls. “They were like: ‘Put your T-shirt over your face in case they start pepper-spraying people.’ That is a totally different experience than posting something on my Facebook page.”
“Both are important steps. But one of them … is going to have a higher chance of getting media attention, one of them is actually getting out and doing something. All revolutions, all changes have been made by getting out and doing something.” ◆