Millenials, Social Media, and Social Justice

Coming of age during a time of rapid and dramatic technological advances, millennials make up a unique generation. They regularly use social media—88 percent report getting their news from Facebook—and are savvy users of the Internet, one of the most important and powerful tools of their time. Checking their phones an average of 43 times a day, millennials seem to be perpetually connected to the world around them, and interact with each other on social media on an almost continuous basis.

This connectedness is an essential mechanism with which members of our generation communicate with each other not only just to socialize, but also to advance our ideas of social justice for the world we live in. There are many Facebook pages and Twitter profiles dedicated to social movements, including Social Justice Solutions and Social Justice Warriors, which have a combined 221,000 followers. To millennials, social media is a valuable organizing tool for the causes they champion. And since social media is a relatively recent and constantly evolving phenomenon—Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat are continually tweaking how they work—the strategies activists use to promote change are evolving along with it. This trend can be seen by examining the evolving methods of two major social movements that much of our generation is currently engaged with: Black Lives Matter, and the push for equality among people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

One of the most well-known social justice movements today is the Black Lives Matter movement, as evidenced by its nearly 130,000 likes on Facebook. This movement is quite different from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, and is a clear reflection of the differences between the baby boomer generation of back then and the millennial generation of today. For starters, Black Lives Matter is a decentralized organization; it has no formal hierarchy, and no MLK or Malcolm X to serve as its members’ leader by acclamation. The movement has many different chapters, each with varying policies, tactics, and events, yet all united under the same guiding principle— affirming that black lives matter in the face of systems of oppression. Another difference is that this movement was, in fact, founded via social media; the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter proliferated online, and many of the movement’s organizers use social media to mobilize people. This goes to show that many millennials see social media as an incredibly powerful tool with which to organize people in an effort to spread social justice. Many of these people tend to believe that the privacy of their lives should sometimes take a back seat to the values they believe in; for this reason, they actively choose to share social justice causes on their Facebook profiles and retweet words of support on Twitter. Furthermore, there is a great deal of pressure on these movements to be as inclusive as possible to fight for the rights of individuals who are queer, female, or who otherwise have intersecting or marginalized identities. This, again, is quite different from the Civil Rights Movement, which was not as inclusive. In fact, within the groups of the 60s, participants often did not live up to their ideals of equality when dealing with women and people with different sexual preferences. Dr. King, with his alleged infidelity and poor treatment of the women he worked with, is a clear example.

This leads us to another cause that many millennials are very passionate about: equality for those who do not identify with a “traditional” sex, sexuality, or gender identity. This movement for LGBTQ rights is decentralized as well. In fact, there is no single organization that people uniformly agree is leading this cause, though the Human Rights Campaign is a big name in the movement. Millennials, for the most part, realize that these identities are fluid, and how one identifies in this regard is a deeply personal matter. Supporters of LGBTQ rights are often especially avid users of social media. One example of these activists making use of online platforms takes the form of Facebook profile photo changes to support the movement at strategic times, like whenever a piece of legislation relating to LGBTQ rights is being debated. Another example is when Facebook gave users the option to put a rainbow filter over their profile pictures following the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. This legal decision was a major milestone for the movement; now, however, it is unclear what the next goal is. Since there is no single organization leading the cause, it can be difficult to agree on the next goal, and then create an effective and unified effort such as the one put in place to push for same-sex marriage.

As the millennial generation matures, it remains to be seen how its members will continue their advocacy through social media. So far, the intersection of social justice and social media is still in its infancy, with no clearly defined method of how to best leverage it. While organizations have experimented with creating groups, pages, and hashtags, there is no universal conclusion on which technique is the best. Millennial activists have, however, attempted to make the organizations and movements that they support reflect the values of much of the generation, namely those relating to equality and inclusiveness. The result is that some of the movements that advance millennials’ favored causes look quite different from the social movements of previous generations. This will be a great challenge for the millennial generation: how to keep the social justice movements in line with the values they cherish, while still making sure they are effective at advancing the causes that millennials hold dear.

Reuben Siegman

Reuben '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at reuben.siegman@wustl.edu.

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