Student activism ebbs and flows with the pandemic and social media

ASU student leaders explain ways they are advocating for causes in the transition back to an in-person format for meetings and protests

Last year was one of activism and protests – the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project recorded over 10,600 demonstrations across the country. Much of the activism in 2020 took place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The nature of trends on social media allowed activist groups to encourage social change in response to unprecedented events including a pandemic, controversial presidential election and widespread protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

"Last year was pretty crazy," said Madison Murphy, a junior studying community health. "I knew a lot about the issues that were going on because they were talked about so often. I haven't heard much this year."

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But activism didn't disappear overnight; protests are still occurring around the country and at ASU. But people, including some students, just don't care about participating in activism as much as they used to, said Peter Hartmann, a freshman studying criminology and criminal justice.

"I cared last year," Hartmann said. "It was hard not to, everywhere you went or looked, it was in your face."

Black Lives Matter was the largest nationwide movement in the U.S. in 2020. According to Civiqs, an online data analytics firm, BLM had a total support of 47% of Americans by the end of December 2020.

Activism took over social media through publicizing in-person protests, distributing information about the issues and advocating for candidates. The Pew Research Center reported in July 2020 that 54% of social media users, ages 18 to 29, used platforms to find protests and rallies happening in their area. 

Students at ASU have seen all kinds of social justice events and information from activists while completing school work and keeping up with other responsibilities. Organizations on campus want to assure students that activism is here to stay.

Joe Pitts, a junior studying management and civic and economic thought and leadership and president of ASU College Republicans, said activism has been much different in 2021. 

"We are in person, we get to see people face-to-face and we are no longer just active on social media," Pitts said. "A lot of people really just want to see other people."

Pitts also emphasized the importance of activism taking place in person rather than online, arguing that many people don't really understand the gist of what activism is.

"Activism isn't posting story graphics on social media," Pitts said. "I think oftentimes, we confuse, especially in the age of social media, activism with posting as it were, and that's very detrimental."  

President of Students for Socialism ASU, Alexia Isais, said student activism is about sharing their opinions even when it's against the status quo. Social media and in-person activism go hand-in-hand, despite the fact that in-person activism is more important, she said. 

"Part of what we're (Students for Socialism) doing right now is promoting events that are happening on social media and at club meetings," said Isais, a senior studying political science.

Cameron Adams, president of ASU Young Democrats and a senior studying global studies, views activism from a different angle. Adams said activism can take place on social media and sometimes it's just as effective as it is in person. 

"I think that there's a place for both," Adams said. "It's important to make your voice heard in any way that you can."

Adams' position does have certain precedents. EAB, a data think tank, researched trends of a significant uptick in online activism in 2020. EAB found that the level of action, support and awareness increased online in 2020. 

The uses of social media in a political context became much more clear in 2020, with individuals and groups using platforms for political messaging about their causes. Former President Donald Trump was notoriously active on Twitter, expanding his reach from traditional media outlets to a network with a globalized audience. 

Isais, a former State Press columnist, was fired by the publication's top student leadership after posting tweets promoting harm toward police officers. Twenty organizations, along with Isais and two columnists who resigned after she was fired, organized a boycott against The State Press and demanded four actions from the publication

READ MORE: Letter from the Editors: Concerning the removal of Alexia Isais

Isais said the numerous organizations that rallied behind her during the pandemic proved activism "isn't really going away."

"The whole scandal in The State Press ... was in itself activism," Isais said. 

She said activists should communicate challenges they are living in with each other and with larger audiences in order to challenge possible oppressive systems. 

"What constitutes activists, what constitutes activism for some other age groups may be posting something on social media or tweeting something that's a little bit controversial when in reality, it's more than that," Isais said. "You have to actually do things. You actually have to challenge."

Alexia Isais is a former State Press columnist and did not participate in the reporting of this article.


Reach the reporter at trricha2@asu.edu and follow @therrealtristan on Twitter.

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