As states certify their vote tallies and the 2020 election cycle draws to a close, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern Melody Tuan looks at the ways that social media activism helped galvanize young voters in this election while also examining the limits of online activist culture.
The U.S. has just concluded a nerve-wrecking presidential election. With this election being touted as the “most important election of our lifetimes,” we witnessed a surge in youth activism and voter engagement. One way young voters demonstrated their activism was through social media. This election, the “ballot selfie” really took off as a social media trend, adopted by celebrities and influencers alike. For ballot selfies, voters pose with their mail-in ballots or “I voted” stickers to showcase their civic participation while urging their followers to vote too.
(Note: While ballot selfies can be a powerful driving force to inspire more people to get involved in the 2020 election, it’s important to stay informed on your state’s laws in the future! There is no federal law around ballot selfies, but ballot selfies are illegal in some states and categorized as a misdemeanor offense. Vox has compiled a state-by-state list detailing where ballot selfies are legal, illegal, and in a legal gray area.)
Ballot selfies served as a powerful tool for making voting appealing to young social media users. Social media platforms such as Snapchat advocated for the legality of ballot selfies, labeling them as vital components to the modern voting process. These platforms argued that ballot selfies are indicative of the power that an individual holds to influence our government. While supporters of ballot selfies view it as a method of exercising free speech, detractors fear that ballots selfies allow for voter intimidation and vote buying.
The rise of socially conscious activist trends (like the ballot selfie) have taken social media by storm within the last few years. Even over the course of the past few months, we’ve seen an increase of posts from celebrities to friends and family demonstrating their support for movements such as Black Lives Matter. But, despite its popularity, social media activist culture has been criticized as “slacktivism” – a form of online activism that focuses primarily on likes, shares, retweets, and hashtags, but lacks concrete actions that extend offline.
Slacktivism – as the title implies – is seen as a lazy form of activism. Instead of actively working for or contributing to causes by donating, volunteering, or doing thorough research, critics feel that a simple post is a cop-out. Alternatively, online support can be beneficial as a method of creating more exposure and awareness for deeper social and political issues. Information spreads at a faster rate through the internet, and the more people a movement reaches, the more impactful it becomes. The problem then becomes the glamorization of social issues.
Activism has become glorified within the realms of social media with celebrities sharing articles on their stories to influencers holding signs at protests. Following their example, we develop a need to prove that we care about these causes too. But, as a result, our online actions then become about who’s posting what (or who’s not posting) rather than the actual cause. Thus, social movements get reduced to a trend rather than a legitimate matter. The concern around trends is that they quickly fade in and out of popularity. What will we do when people stop posting? Do we stop caring about #MeToo and #BLM? Racism and sexism are not issues that disappear with their hashtags. They continue to exist and progress unless direct action is taken.
Yes, sharing and posting online are absolutely an asset in our fight for equality, but direct action is at the heart of every movement. With ballot selfies, it’s not the selfie that matters: it’s the act of voting and urging other citizens to vote as well. Many stories from oppressed voices deserve to be heard beneath the glamorized posts. Sometimes we need to stop and listen to the voices from those who hurt the most rather than from who is most popular. Social media is a platform where everyone has the ability to have their voice heard, even in a world that won’t listen. But activism isn’t a trend to be used to boost our online personas; activism is about inciting meaningful change for a better world. The key to online actions supporting meaningful change offline? At MEDIAGIRLS, we say that it is all about authenticity and living the values that your activism shows, both on and off of social media.
About the Author: Melody Tuan is an undergraduate student at Simmons University majoring in English writing and minoring in Asian studies and Art. She’s an international student from Taiwan who loves rummaging night markets and devouring street food. Deeply inspired by cultural studies and creative expression, she writes with curiosity about identity and media influence.
Featured Image: Members of the Instagram community @campustrendsetters hold up their “I Voted” stickers, ballots, and rock voting-inspired attire.