Social media is sometimes perceived as just being a “cool tool” for young people and providing them with swift and easy means of communication for contacting friends worldwide. Thus, people are quick to judge the legitimate and informed uses of social media platforms. However, having quick worldwide lines of communication and predominantly involving young people, is exactly how social media should be used, especially for effective activism!
A recent debate on International Criminal Justice and Social Media, at the Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations, with a panel including people involved in journalism, legal professions and academia, examined how social media is, and should be, used. The panel discussed how social media could be used as a means of extending formal instruments of international criminal justice systems and how it encourages increased involvement in legal issues.
Social media is shifting the concept of news and media. Today there is a continuous blending of news media through social media sites. Many recent events, such as the Kony 2012 campaign and the Arab Spring, have demonstrated how social media can influence mass movements. These movements through social media have been attributed to the interest and involvement of younger generations.
A couple of the panellists, Stephanie Barbour, of Amnesty International’s Centre for International Justice, and Dr. Bibi van Ginkel, a senior research fellow at Clingendael and a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, acknowledged that youth maybe perceived as the starting point for movements on social media. Younger people, moreover, are more inclined to become involved in social media, as they are the more frequent users of these tools.
The intention of social media is to engage with people outside of these political and legal systems. Involvement in social media builds support and creates a network of partners for important issues; therefore it has the capacity to have an impact within political and legal systems. Social media, if used effectively, has the ability to put pressure on and influence governments. These social media tools offer people a chance to gain a perspective on issues in other nations and it allows people to become involved in means of communication often perceived as controlled by “mainstream” and “elite” media outlets. But, the panel also noted that it was important that these people spread the right message, hit their target groups, and understand development levels for social media activity.
It is important to understand that, while youth may have the skills to involve themselves in such forms of activism on social media, it is also imperative that the means of social media be used properly in order to work effectively. This was also an issue that was raised by the panel during the debate. Stephanie Barbour also commented that, those who engage in activism through social media have to be dedicated, persistent and reach out to those who are affected by the issue that is being raised through social media. There is the danger that online activism could result in “slacktivism” and movements could slow down and lose interest easily. There is also the possibility of these issues and movements turning into popularity contests through personal uses of social media, according to Marten Youssef, a spokesman for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. He also stated that these topics are usually complex. Using social media must provide a clear, simple and accurate message regarding these issues. It is important that, if youth are to become more involved in online activism, young people really believe in the issues they are standing for and then they can attempt to gain support for these movements even when interest seems to be fading.
The future of how effective youth involvement in social media can be really depends on the level of interaction between the public and these social media tools. Activism and awareness raising is a long term fight, even through social media, and must be kept up in an effort to engage younger audiences and prepare them for future involvement.
by Keith Thomson, Network and Communications Officer, UNOY Peacebuilders