Home Youth activism A Sign of Change: Engaging the Social Media Generation

A Sign of Change: Engaging the Social Media Generation

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With an umbrella barely protecting me, I stood in front of the town hall, my jeans soaked from the pouring rain. As it should be, given the tragedy we were protesting against: Roe vs. Wade had just been knocked down. As the march slowly made its way towards the US Embassy, ​​I took a moment to marvel at the groups of young people posing with their signs, other protesters taking pictures. Many were adorned with discordant humorous slogans such as “If life begins with ejaculation, fellatio is cannibalism”. I was struck by the effort to make these posters not only unique, but clearly shareable.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that protest posts have increasingly positioned themselves to go viral, using meme formats rather than iterating on common slogans associated with a cause. The coat hanger is one of those (morbid) motifs worthy of the Roe vs. Wade the context. While there were plenty of signs emblazoned with “my body, my choice” and other classic feminist slogans, it was mostly an older crowd showing them off. The younger ones preferred to have more inflammatory signs. It seems everyone is competing to find the wittiest phrases or the best appropriation of a well-known meme format, leading to a disconnected collection of shoutouts rather than a single unified message.

Iconic protest movements such as May 68, led by Parisian art students, developed striking visual symbols repeated throughout their strikes, reproduced through posters, leaflets and banners – a natural consequence of the use of screen printing to print media at the time. The repeated imagery was an evocative call to action; a young girl throwing bricks in the street, images of oppressive factories and workers marching in protest remain symbolic of the power of defiant youth.

As movements for social change become more mainstream, they invariably attract younger crowds. Information about protests and strikes is often disseminated online, and participants respond by creating media that they hope to keep in a digital space. Without strong ties to activist collectives, young people tend to react in ways that mirror how they engage with protest movements in the first place – through social media.

Social media has undoubtedly increased youth participation in protests. Since news from around the world is widely accessible, it is easier to create a sense of solidarity with global movements. Activism during lockdowns has relied heavily on building strong social media platforms rather than building real-life youth activist networks. Movements that are supported by the physical act of showing up have struggled in the shadow of low-effort forms of online activism since COVID.

As these protests seek to spread to new, younger populations, organizers have gone to great lengths to capture the fleeting attention of protesters. Painted banners and sign-making events are popular ways to build energy around a movement, and the physical acts of making zines and flyers offer a tangible method to engage in activism. . Plus, they create real people-to-people connections between participants, helping new activists find space to demand change across a community.

Although widely criticised, the sharing of protest media images – whether via infographics or witty signs – is a growing way to engage in politics, signaling young people’s desire to get involved in social movements . And while sharing posts on social media can be a simple way to engage in political discourse, it can serve as a gateway to further action.

School Strike 4 Climate is a movement that has successfully translated its online following and meme success into physical participation. By centering young activists, their content is both relevant to an online generation and has a strong political undercurrent: their entire platform is built on the strike in the streets.

It’s important that activism doesn’t stop at sharing posts, and we need to remain critical of movements built solely in the digital space. People need to be given the opportunity to do real work in their communities, whether through protests, fundraising or self-help, and all media should build on that. Whether this is achieved by honoring the slogans and designs of the past or by voicing new ideas is secondary to the act of standing in the streets and demanding change. Ultimately, strong protest movements must draw their supporters to the streets, and creating humorous signs is a good start.