Social media has amplified the opportunities for online-offline activism. When participants become sufficiently outraged by a social issue circulating online, they frequently feel inspired to participate offline. This offline participation, ignited by social media outrage is driving social movements and forcing political change.
Social media outrage is a positive force for political change. Instead of relying on media outlets to pick up their plight, marginalised communities are able to mass communicate and generate outrage and sympathy for their cause. This outrage translates to increased participation in social movements, which pressures lawmakers to address the social issue. For example, after the image of Aylan Kurdi, a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on a European beach went viral and sparked a social media outrage, public support for refugees in Europe ballooned under the #RefugeesWelcome hashtag. This prompted several governments to increase their refugee intake. Australia bowed to public pressure and took in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees.
Social media has not given social movements the boost described. Nor is it a valuable driver of meaningful political change for two reasons. It Creates a Binary Narrative Firstly, it too frequently simplifies issues and forms a binary narrative. In most occasions of social media outrage, the collective develops a binary “good guy” vs “bad guy” narrative. In movements like the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein was the villain and the women accusing him were the heroes. This simple narrative was successful in driving change in the case of the #MeToo movement, where the distinction between right and wrong was clearly defined. But for many other far more nuanced issues, the restrictive binary narrative does more harm than good. In the past, social issues would have stimulated public discussion, in which participants would spend months raising awareness of the issue, publicly discussing the complexities of the issue at length. When successful, the issue would have drawn sufficient public attention to build a grassroots movement. In the process, the public at large gradually becomes more exposed to the movement, building a greater understanding of its complexities. In the social media-driven world, digital “activists” are not willing to invest the time to consider the nuances of the issue. They prefer to see an inflammatory image or video and respond with instant outrage and moral superiority. This means that simple issues, like the #MeToo movement, that can be instantly reduced to that binary “good vs evil” or “right vs wrong” narrative dominate the public discourse. Other, more complex and nuanced issues will never garner the same attention or enjoy the same success. It is Fleeting Social media outrage subsides as fast as it builds. This means any political victories are short-lived. In the case of the #RefugeesWelcome movement, once the initial outrage had subsided, governments were able to go back to business-as-usual. Just one year later, the movement had fizzled out and there was decreased public appetite for governments to take in more refugees. This is typical of social media outrage. It makes it unable to drive meaningful political change. It encourages governments to make small initial concessions rather than substantive legislative reforms.
[P1] Social media outrage drives social movements. [P2] Social movements pressure governments to act. [P3] Therefore, social media outrage drives political and social change.
[Rejecting P1] Social media outrage only drives simple movements which have a clear "bad guy". [Rejecting P3] Governments know social media outrage is fleeting and frequently do not respond to it.