Why Online Activism is Important For Social Justice

by Sareeta Lopez

Lately, I’ve felt I’m not really doing anything to support feminism and other important social justice causes. Most of what I do is online; sharing articles, writing my own, discussing ideas on Twitter and Facebook, and engaging in discussions in the comments of my blog. For obvious reasons, I avoid conflict in YouTube or Facebook comment sections.

I’m not out picketing anything, defending a sacred place, or lobbying for changes in policies.

I’m not out fighting my rapist in court to show others that survivors’ voices are important.

I’m not at schools making speeches on consent, equality, and queer rights.

Am I really supporting the causes I care about? Do those critics of “digital activists” have a point when they say online activism is “slacktivism” or not real activism? I do want to be more active in my community than I have been this past year. I do want to support my causes offline in addition to my online activism, because I feel they are equally as important and useful. I believe that, ideally, one should engage in both.

Why is online activism important? For one, the internet has completely changed the way people communicate. It is now a legitimate place to do something meaningful. Discussing social justice issues online is a valid form of communication through which we can learn to be better activists. Engaging on online forums, blogs, and other websites educates others AND yourself. Just because the medium may not be a printed magazine or a university stage does not make it worthless, especially now that our world is increasingly online. It is true that online activism may sometimes do more harm than good: with so much information out there, it’s common to find false information. While this is a flaw, we must be able to think critically about what we find on the internet. The fact that people are talking online means that dialogue is happening: something every social justice movement needs.

While dialogue needs to happen offline as well, it isn’t possible for everyone. The internet has become a place for many people to find support. People who feel alone, or simply those who are questioning their beliefs and the beliefs of those around them, can seek answers or others like them online. Not everyone is able to discuss social justice issues in person with the people they know. It’s much easier for someone who doesn’t know much about a given social justice issue to find information online, or even find hope: they can find communities that they would otherwise not be able to find offline.

This doesn’t just go for people who can’t afford a university education; this goes for people with disabilities, people who have anxiety, people without transportation, and people outside of cities. Although a flaw of online activism is that not everyone has access to the internet, it cannot be denied that the internet has connected people in ways not possible before. Online activism gives people who might not otherwise have gotten the chance to participate the opportunity to do so regularly. Not only does that help them, but it helps other supporters of the cause because we can learn about perspectives that would otherwise not be heard in offline activism. It may be “easier” activism, but that doesn’t invalidate it.

As well, online activism is more accessible for those who may not know enough about a given topic to do anything offline yet. A couple months ago, I participated in a UN Women Safe Cities Initiative in Edmonton. A year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing! I wouldn’t have felt informed enough about the subject, even as a woman who doesn’t always feel safe in her city. It took time for me to learn about feminism and safe spaces before I felt like I had something to contribute to the discussion. I’ve been shy of doing anything in my community because of how little I know and how inexperienced I am. And that’s okay. 

It’s okay to take your time learning and to not know everything right away. It just so happens that there are resources for learning about feminism at your own pace online, like Everyday FeminismFeminist CurrentFinally, a Feminism 101 Blog, and Feministing which all include writers that have a background in social justice or a degree in Women’s Studies. The thing with feminism and many social justice issues is that there are many different perspectives, and not all of them agree with each other. I am no expert in feminism, and it is important for me to admit that. However, as long as I am critical of myself and others, that should not stop me from participating and discussing the issues with others.

There is no such thing as the “perfect” activist, after all: we are all always learning. While having a degree in Women’s Studies might “qualify” someone to discuss those issues, it is important that people who don’t have this background can also participate. Feminism in particular has always been quite elitist, with the most discussion about the topic being among the university-educated, favouring issues that people from that background face. Historically, feminism was also very much about white women’s struggles — while there was absolutely reason to fight for the vote and the right to work outside the home, many women of colour were forced to work already and when black men achieved the vote before white women, famous feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton treated this is as a disgrace.

With such a history, feminism still has a negative reputation among many women of colour and it is still not as accessible as it could be. It is common for the faces of feminism to be white: Gloria Steinem and Emma Watson come to mind, though it’s great that Beyoncé is up there too. Even now, many years since Stanton, this excludes women of colour from a conversation that should include them. Most feminist discussion is still among the university-educated too, which implies a place of class privilege.

Elitism makes things difficult for people who don’t have the same background to access to the same resources. But it’s important that social justice movements be inclusive. How can we make change if we can’t even include the people that the issues are about? This is why online activism is important: people can share things as they learn, no matter their background, and people who do have a background in the issues can help those who are new learn as well.

False information is out there, but it’s offline, too. That’s hardly a reason to exclude people that might not have a background in the topics being discussed. With a tool like the internet, social justice activists should use it to educate others and create communities. Personally, I have joined several feminist groups on Facebook and have found a few feminist bloggers along my blogging journey as well. I’ve met people who have studied feminism extensively as well as those who are new, like me. I’ve gone to those groups when I’ve felt totally lost, when I needed some help, or just people to talk to.

There is something amazing about finding your kind of people online. Sometimes people argue that social media is a bubble: it gives us exactly what we want to see and doesn’t help us to be critical. But the people I’ve met are not those that just listen blindly to what you say and don’t question it. I’m talking about people who believe in the cause and thinking critically about it. Even in real life, you don’t find friends like this all the time.

Social media has given us an amazing tool: a way to connect with like-minded online activists, and community is one of the most important things for any activism. The most fantastic result is that online activism only helps offline activism. The number of offline conversations I’ve had around social justice issues, whether feminism or something else altogether, has definitely increased since I started sharing my blog with people I know in real life. People in my offline life have reached out to me because of my online activism, sharing very personal stories about their struggles and telling me that they are inspired to do things offline too. When someone shares with me, I know I’ve made a difference.

Social media does make a difference, even on a global scale: the 2011 coup in Egypt was heavily fueled by social media activism. Facebook and Twitter were critical tools that had a HUGE role in the event. It was such an unprecedented occurrence that I actually wrote a political science paper about it during my time in university!

A lot can happen now that people are much more easily connected with one another.
It’s true — online activism is changing the world.

Banner illustration courtesy of Wanderer Visual Editor Fren Mah.

Interested in starting your own blog? Learn how I started mine here.

What do you think of online activism? Do you participate in any? Share in a comment below!

Sareeta is the blogger behind Flight & Scarlet, an Edmonton-based blog with the aim of making feminism and related topics more accessible and less elitist, as well as helping fellow survivors of rape find support. In her spare time, Sareeta likes watching Netflix, reading, going for walks, and playing with her little cat, Matrix. If you would like to connect with her, leave a comment or find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest!

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  • Kirsten Horton

    I’d argue the key distinction isn’t online vs offline but rather the quality of activism. Sharing an article on Facebook or having a conversation with a friend is good; educating several people who may not have heard of your cause is better; lobbying your government representative is better still. Each of these examples can take place online or offline; that’s not the point. Some are just more helpful than others. I’d be pretty suspicious of someone who calls themselves an “activist” because they sit and talk with their BFFs about feminism occasionally, whether it’s digital or IRL.

    • Hey Kirsten! Thanks for your comment!

      I think you make a great point. When you mentioned that you’d be suspicious of someone calling themselves an activist if they sit and talk with people about feminism *occasionally,* it made me also think about consistency. If you go to one rally, are you an activist? You’ve still done something useful, but I think doing something regularly is what makes someone an activist.

      Perhaps it’s that with an increase in online activism, the definition of “activism” is changing and has become less specific. I even hesitated with your example of sharing an article on Facebook — is that activism? To me online activism is indeed educating other people and educating yourself, but I don’t feel like sharing Facebook posts is necessarily activism. It seems so passive, though important. Similarly, in my mind, having conversations with the same group of friends all the time isn’t necessarily activism, but it’s still important and it is still participating.

      What do you think? You’ve given me lots to think about!