Anti gun rally in Gainesville, Fl. Photo by Tucker Berardi

Within hours of the Pulse nightclub massacre that claimed the lives of 49 victims, Facebook and Twitter feeds were swarmed with messages of grief and solidarity, with hashtags like #PrayForOrlando, #Pulse and #OrlandoStrong quickly gaining traction. 

The more recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida saw a similar social media reaction, and this time the students and surrounding community quickly turned it  into an opportunity for change, creating the “March For Our Lives" movement, which has over 280,000 followers on Facebook. 

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Photo by Tucker Berardi.

According to University of Texas Sociology and Communications professor Dhiraj Murthy, a number of social issues have benefited from the use of social media. In some cases, social media were central in the creation of activism organizations. 

“Recent social movements such as Black Lives Matter transitioned from tweet debates to action on the streets which profoundly shaped ‘national discourse about race,’” Murthy said. “Activist organizations are increasingly seeing the value of social media for recruitment, public engagement, and campaign organization.” 

Locally, the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council has been using social media to keep its local audience informed, but has found that people from all over the country have followed its Facebook page. 

“We have people who get on our website and Facebook page and are interacting from places like North Dakota and Idaho that don’t have a huge organized gay community,” Rand Hoch, president of PBCHRC said. “They may not have a lot of people supporting them back home, but they can make a post on Facebook and get a response — it is great for community building. There are so many different ways, once you reach out, to get people interacting and communicating with one another.” 

PBCHRC posts updates on ordinances it is working on and gets users involved in efforts such as its recent push to ban conversion therapy at the city and county level.  

“When we post links to ordinances, we will get responses from all over the country,” Hoch said. “We’ve been working with a couple of groups up in Ohio and Pennsylvania that are doing the sorts of stuff we are doing. They are stuck with a legislature that isn’t responsive, but they are doing something similar to what we are doing here with local public officials who understand the need to make change because it is not going to happen elsewhere.”

According to Hoch, social media is also a critical tool for reaching younger audiences who are passionate about LGBT issues and more, but may be unsure of how to get involved. 

“The younger you are, the more likely you are to respond to social media as opposed to something in the mail or even a phone call.” 

LGBT reporter Khalid El Khatib said that social media has become an integral part of activism and social movements, especially in younger generations — but often that participation fails to move beyond a digital space. 

“We are seeing voices coming out of more rural areas,” Khatib said. “How can queer communities in less queer-centric spaces organize and mobilize?” 

Khatib said that social media can be a great tool for organizing and communicating with social movements, but these platforms can also give a false sense of participation. The younger generation will readily like and share activism messages, and believe that is enough to enact change — also known as slacktivism. 

Slacktivism is defined as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g., signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website,” according to dictionary.com.

“Generation Z, the people who were born to be content creators, are taking the forefront on these issues,” Khatib said. “Twitter and Instagram can definitely get people to show up to protests — but will it result in an uptick in 18-to-20 year old voters … the verdict is still out.” 

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Photo by Tucker Berardi.

PBCHRC includes links to voter registration in almost every email they send out, according to Hoch. 

Social media can be effective in disseminating messages of change, Khatib said, but also makes it easier to do the bare minimum in terms of participation. 

“We need to push organizations to do better — prioritize the online and offline,” Khatib said. “The real measure will be the 2018 and 2020 elections, and how many young people come out to vote.”