The Role of Social Media in Transnational Youth Activism

30 November 2023 /

5 min

The rise of social media has established itself as a potent instrument for activism, offering individuals and movements a platform to generate awareness.

Activism has traditionally been intertwined with youth culture. From May 1968 in France, to the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, young people have been the propellers of social change. Today, “Gen Z”, distinguishes itself by communicating, mobilising, and garnering support differently than its predecessors did.

In the past decades, social media has proven to be a powerful catalyst for change, bringing together young voices from the dynamic landscape of contemporary activism. The rise of social media has established itself as a potent instrument for activism, offering individuals and movements a platform to generate awareness, initiate discussions, and propel transformative societal change. Many activists have utilised the capabilities of social media to question established norms, advocate for equality, and cultivate a more inclusive social environment. From local grassroots initiatives to transnational social movements, the digital realm has become an instrumental platform for mobilisation and collective action. 

Generation Z and Digital Activism

According to global data from Edelman, 70% of Generation Z individuals are actively engaged in social or political causes. They exhibit a high level of social involvement, advocating for causes through their everyday activities. Gen Z emerges as a generation unafraid to take a stand, with a notable propensity to boycott products, companies, or even entire countries based on political, social, or environmental concerns.

The driving force behind much of Gen Z’s activism is frustration, as research indicates, they are generally more disenchanted with government and political engagement compared to older generations. The University of Cambridge, drawing on global data since 1973, reveals that confidence in democratic politics among young people is at its lowest across all age groups. In the 18 to 34 age range, encompassing both Gen Z and millennials, satisfaction with democracy is experiencing its most significant decline. Faced with higher debt, reduced prospects of homeownership, and increased challenges in starting a family, the discontent among Gen Z continues to intensify, shaping the contours of a new era of digital activism.

From Grassroots to “Glocal” movements

In this era of social media, youngsters possess the ability to thrust various forms of activism into the spotlight, navigating both local and global spheres. Online platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram serve as epicentres for information exchange and networking, transforming recent youth-led street protests into digital affairs.

A standout phenomenon is using social media to foster connections and involves like-minded peers in advancing online civic engagement. Platforms serve as secure spaces for the younger generation to express their views and launch campaigns, exemplified by initiatives like the Sunrise Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. Through hashtags, mentions, and direct messages, the facilitation of interaction between young individuals and organisations has become seamless, allowing for collaborative efforts contributing to substantial and positive transformations.

Viral Momentum and Hashtags in Activism

The true potency of a well-crafted hashtag comes to life in the example of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo was not just a hashtag; it became a virtual banner under which survivors stand, until now, united. What kickstarted as a grassroots movement organically evolved into a transnational wave, challenging societal norms and initiating conversations on an unprecedented global scale.

The #MeToo movement showcases how a strategically chosen hashtag can act as a virtual beacon, drawing solidarity from every nook and cranny of the world. As survivors shared their experiences using this unifying tag, the movement transcended its initial intent, becoming a symbol of change. The hashtag wasn’t just a digital label; it was a rallying point that symbolised a collective outcry, sparking crucial conversations.

The strategic use of hashtags goes beyond mere tagging; it’s about weaving a narrative that resonates globally. Virality, in the context of a hashtag, is not just about digital reach—it is an indicator of its capacity to breach barriers, ignite conversations, and foster a sense of collective agency.

The European Union’s Youth in Digital Action

The European Union (EU) has become a hub for youth-driven grassroots movements leveraging social media to address critical issues. One such case study is the Fridays for Future movement inspired by Greta Thunberg’s activism. Young climate activists across EU member states utilised Instagram and TikTok to organise local strikes, evolving this grassroots initiative into a transnational movement, and creating a unified voice for climate action across the EU.

Remarkable progress in LGBTQ+ rights has also been achieved through social media activism within the EU. Social Media platforms played a pivotal role in connecting activists from different EU countries, challenging discriminatory policies with hashtags like #LoveIsLoveEU that unified diverse voices beyond national borders.

Facing unprecedented challenges, the EU witnessed the mobilisation of transnational responses through social media, particularly in addressing the refugee crisis following the Syrian conflict. Influential voices, including bloggers, activists, and celebrities, used their reach to shed light on the plight of refugees, exemplified by the trending hashtag #RefugeesWelcome. Grassroots organisations formed through social media connections coordinated efforts, pressuring EU governments to reassess refugee policies and sparking conversations about compassion and shared responsibility.

Setbacks to Social Media Activism in the Digital Age

While social media undoubtedly amplifies the voices of youth activists, it is not without its complexities. The spread of misinformation, online harassment, echo chambers, and the risk of movements being co-opted or diluted are challenges activists must grapple with. The Black Lives Matter movement faced attempts to discredit its message through disinformation campaigns, highlighting the delicate balance between the benefits and pitfalls of social media activism.

Within the EU, where social media has facilitated transnational activism, challenges also persist. The EU’s diversity in languages and cultures adds an additional layer of complexity, necessitating nuanced strategies for effective communication and collaboration across borders.

It is evident that social media has played a transformative role in the landscape of youth activism. From grassroots initiatives to transnational movements, the digital age has empowered young activists to break down geographical barriers, fostering a sense of global solidarity. While challenges persist, the potential for positive change through social media remains vast. As we move forward, it is crucial to recognize and harness these platforms’ power to amplify the youth’s voices and drive meaningful, lasting change on a global scale.

Rocio Rivera is a master student at the Institute of European Studies.

(Edited by Luka Krauss)

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