Stop Scrolling and Sign

How social media activism can actually make a difference.

You might come across them on Twitter. Your aunt may share them on Facebook using too many emojis. You may see them on Instagram alongside the well-worn mantra “Link in bio!” A shuffling TikToker may direct you to them while dancing to a song that will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. If you’re like me, you come across them pretty often: Social media calls to action.

Social media activism is having a moment. Whether it’s an ask to place calls to your representative, sign a petition or share educational material with your friends, there is an engaged, energized corner of social media growing louder every day. These people are using their platforms to transform likes and follows into real, substantial change.

If you’ve come across these calls to action while scrolling through your feed, a question might enter your mind as your finger hesitates over the “Sign” button: Do the actions we take on social media actually make a difference?

As a digital campaigner with an environmental advocacy group, this question may plague me more than most, especially as social media activism has taken off over the past year. The isolation of life during a pandemic combined with such galvanizing cultural moments as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have led to this new action-oriented social media phenomena.

The Instagram slideshow, for instance, lets users quickly share bite-sized information with their followers. These can range from actions to take -- such as organizations to donate to or petitions to sign -- to educational materials -- like how to call your representatives and two-minute history lessons. And though it’s best known for dance challenges and passing hairbrushes, TikTok has cultivated a growing number of activists by dedicating its platform entirely to causes like environmental activism.

But your finger is still hesitating over the “Sign” button. You still want to know what all of this social media activism is actually accomplishing.

Possibly the biggest criticism of social media activism is that it simply creates the illusion that users are making a difference. This is often called “slacktivism.” In fact, a 2018 study by Pew Research found that 71 percent of respondents agreed “social media makes people believe they're making a difference when they really aren't.”

That’s a valid concern. Pressing “Sign,” then scrolling away to watch a husky howl at a piano might not accomplish very much. However, petitions do make a difference on their own because their real power comes as part of a chain reaction. No matter what happens to your signature afterwards, the true power of hitting “Sign” is building on the small actions on social media of so many others like you and sharing that commitment with your friends to create a chain reaction in those around you. In that way, one signature can become dozens, hundreds or thousands.

Beyond that, clicking ‘Sign” should do something else profound: It should create a chain reaction in you. Most of us habitually open our favorite social media apps several times a day. In the same way, if that social media experience is threaded with moments of contemplation about the issues you care about, taking action can become a habit. If you sign a petition, then think about why that petition seemed important enough to sign, then think about other ways you can make a difference on that issue... that’s the beginning of something much bigger. It’s a chain reaction that starts in social media and ends somewhere incredibly meaningful.

This actually harkens back to an old activist mantra: “Think globally, act locally.” The more people who embrace the actions they have control over and share them within their “local” social media community, the bigger the chain reaction and the more actual change we can experience on a large scale. Think of hashtag activism, like #FridaysForFuture, which started locally like most social change movements. It  has since brought people into the streets all over the world, changed the way we talk about climate change and sparked a global movement that isn’t stopping anytime soon.

What does this reaction look like in practice? I had some scraps of paper lying around and a couple of brand new Sharpie pens waiting to be used… so I decided to illustrate this concept using paper dolls.

Yes, taking action on social media does make a difference. But, it also can’t stop there. If you want to start your own chain reaction, you can begin right here by signing our One Million for 100% Renewable Energy petition. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible who care enough about renewable energy to press “Sign” -- then follow up with those people with more actions they can take to turn that signature into a movement for meaningful, sustainable change.