Cliff Lampe

Cliff Lampe is an assistant professor at the School of Information, where he also received his PhD. Before returning to Michigan, he taught for several years at Michigan State University.

By Cliff Lampe

Social media over the past year has been shown to be an important tool in social protests in a variety of contexts. From the Arab Spring, to the Occupy Wall Street protests, to union protests in Wisconsin, the access people have to tools that allow them to share information and coordinate collective action have enabled offline activities that are important to social change. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites have been places where people share information, learn about issues, comment on these topics, and occasionally coordinate offline social action.

More recently, the Kony 2012 video was an effort by the group Invisible Children to bring the attention of social media participants to the issue of child soldiers in Uganda. Even though the issue has drawn some critiques, the method is likely to become more common as different advocacy groups try to bring attention to issues by inserting those issues into the social media streams that are increasingly part of peoples’ lives. For example, the story of teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot to death in Florida in February, has been distributed via social media to bring it to wider attention than may have happened through the efforts of the mass media alone.

This past January, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a massive online protest was organized. Popular sites like Wikipedia and Reddit “went dark” and encouraged their users to sign online petitions and contact their representatives to speak against the bill. These calls to action were widely spread through social media as well. Many legislators mentioned that the protests caused them to change their support of the bills.

Few people would say that social media is causing these protests, but the new forms of interaction may help facilitate the communication necessary to organize these activities. These tools allow people to create their own content and share it, as well as to share stories they find in other sites easily with their networks. Many of these sites also aggregate information from a large set of connections, bringing a diverse set of stories (some personal, some related to issues in the news) to a single stream. By reducing the cost of sharing information, social media can help bring large-scale attention to issues.

However, there are also criticisms of the use of social media to engage in these types of collective action. The term “slacktivism” has been used to describe the potential problem where people share stories of social protest, but don’t take the action any further than their social media channels. What effect does sharing a video about child soldiers actually have on the problem? Critics have pointed out that the video is factually flawed, but how much do people investigate these issues other than passing on the viral information? To what extent does online attention to an issue lead to other forms of action? Social media can provide powerful tools to help people share information, including information about issues inherent in socially engaged computing. However, whether this is really a new way for us to communicate and coordinate social protest, or whether sharing this information displaces more meaningful types of collective action is still an open question.