For Twitter users, it’s easy to be aware when a new social media idea is trending. Spread by celebrities and acquaintances alike, a hashtag can go viral in a matter of hours, and then, just as quickly, its popularity will fall off. When the tag is something like #DescribeYourselfBadly, the decline in its use is inconsequential; but when the hashtag is used to drive awareness of a social cause, there can be increased pressure to keep the trend going. However, immersed in the bubble of social media, it can be hard to know if liking Rihanna’s post calling on world leaders to #FundEducation will actually help UNICEF fund girls’ education.1 Ultimately, the exact extent of any legal impact from social media campaigns is uncertain, but recent outcomes suggest there is certainly some value in digital advocacy.
Recently in the United States, a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo advocated for the release of the Nunes Memo.23 The concern over this hashtag was the source of the accounts promoting it.4 Groups that track Russian-linked Twitter accounts indicated that such accounts were actively using the hashtag.5 Unfortunately, Twitter only tracks geographical locations for original tweets, so if an account located in the United States tweeted using #ReleaseTheMemo, Russian-based accounts could retweet it without Twitter being alerted.6 The memo was ultimately released, though not without controversy. It’s impossible to know if the proliferation of this hashtag played a significant role in legislators’ decision to release the memo,7 however, given how connected many government officials are to social media, it’s not impossible that some, or all, of the empowered officials were aware of a seemingly strong social media presence advocating for the release of this memo.8
Certainly, social movement leaders are aware of the power a strong social media presence can have in wooing the populace to their cause. Prior to Australia’s legalization of same-sex marriage, citizens were asked to informally vote via a postal survey.9 Fearing that disengaged millennials would fail to return their forms, Twitter, a public supporter of marriage equality, debuted a custom emoji linked to #EqualityCampaign, #MarriageEquality, #VoteYes, #PostOurYes, #PostYes, and #YesforEquality.10 The image, a rainbow-colored Australia with “Yes” displayed across the middle, was widely used in the marriage equality campaign. This was not the first use of social media to encourage participation in the vote there either. An earlier campaign using #postboxselfie was also aimed at encouraging younger voters to complete and return their ballots.11 While the result of the ballot vote was nonbinding on the Australian Parliament, the outcome informed its decision to a certain extent, with many members deciding how to vote once they saw the results of the survey.12 However, these social media campaigns are a few steps removed from the Parliamentary vote and it’s hard to know if there is any causal link.
In an article published in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell criticized social media activism for allowing participants to do nothing while still feeling the satisfaction of having done something, meaning that by joining a Facebook page, a user has done nothing to substantially further whatever cause he or she may be supporting.13 Gladwell critically compares this to the Greensboro sit-ins, where protesters actually risked their physical well-being to advocate for desegregation. However, his theory, dubbed “slactivism,” has been criticized. Successful protests born online “have used social media not as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it.”14 This is the same approach taken by Australian marriage-equality advocates. The campaigns were meant to spur action, not replace it.15
This theory of social media is not unique to Australia. Within the United States, the first Women’s March, in 2017, was a movement born entirely online.16 Ultimately, an estimated one million people showed up at these marches worldwide.17 Since then, record numbers of women are registering as candidates in local, state, and federal elections.18 Most of them have done so in response to the current administration.19 This sort of female-lead resistance has been led by additional social media movements such as #WomensMarch and #TheResistance, in conjunction with organizations such as Run for Something, She Should Run, and EMILY’s List, all of which are aimed at encouraging and supporting women who run for office.20 Once elected, these women will be involved in shaping laws that better meet the needs they feel have been ignored by previous legislators.21 Thus, the fact that they were driven to action by social media could ultimately have a large legal impact.
Even outside legislation, the #MeToo movement has greatly raised awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault experienced by women.22 This social media campaign, in conjunction with high-profile trials such as that of Larry Nassar, has rallied women and their allies to advocate for better legal protection.23 The rallying cry of #MeToo is also meant to spur action offline.24 While undoubtedly there will be people who never do more than like another video of @halsey’s #WomensMarsh2018 speech tagged with #MeToo, it seems certain that at least someone amongst the vast numbers of people involved in social media will be encouraged to act in the real world as a result of what they see. And those who act will slowly affect the law, eventually producing their desired effect.