While the Supreme Court debated the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act – which confines marriage to only be allowed between a man and a woman – a trend went viral so rapidly on Facebook that many were left wondering what to make of it. In support of the overturning of the act and thus the allowance of gay marriage, the red equals sign logo of the Human Rights Campaign – an organization dedicated to the fight for LGBT rights – was shared over 100,000 times as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday – the first day of the Supreme Court case. Many even changed their profile pictures to the logo, sparking a frenzy of confusion over what was happening.
Yet the viral photo also sparked a debate over the role and influence social media yields in society. Skeptics argue that this kind of “Slacktivism” – or easy activism over the internet – is pointless and does not lead to any changes in society. Some critics – such as Malcom Gladwell – point to the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, activism that was done with the complete absence of social media. To juxtapose this, he pokes holes in what many regard as “social media revolutions,” arguing that they actually yield little results.
On the other side of the argument, advocates of using social media to influence social change maintain that although the effects are not explicit, simple things like sharing a photo or changing a profile picture can have a remarkable effect in the grand scheme of things. In one case, activists successfully blocked an act from passing strictly through social media. The Stop Online Piracy Act drew a great deal of heat and prompted many Facebook users to alter their Facebook profile pictures to include “STOP SOPA” in it, as well as many major websites including Wikipedia to blackout in protest. In response to this wave of opposition, the bill was put off and was not enacted.
But even when social media activism is combined with live physical protests, results are not always evident. The prime example of this would be the Occupy Wall Street movement, which dominated news headlines and dinner discussions for months. Social media played an integral part in their protest, as they spread word of further demonstrations, status of the movement, and general sentiments using it. They also hosted live sit-ins and marches that drew thousands of supporters – evidence of the movement being more than just slacktivism. Despite this, the movement can only be seen as a failure in the grand scheme of things, as very few to none of their demands were met. Corporate greed still pervades the capitalistic society and economic inequality continues to stretch further.
These numerous examples show that the success of protests vary widely and cannot be attributed to whether it is done through social media or through physical demonstrations. Many other factors are also at play. But that is no to dismiss the value of social media – even if it does not result in the explicit and flagrant influence in society, it does spark a conversation which indirectly leads to social change. So while one teenager changing her profile picture does not seem like a big deal, when done in unison with many others, it matters a great deal. Just like voting, while it may seem like one measly vote cannot affect the outcome, it contributes to the larger electorate and thus the value of the individual vote is validated. The question is not whether or not it will have an impact – it is how much of an impact it will have. As for this marriage equality issue, that answer is still clearly way up in the air.