July 21, 2019 | 92° F

Rutgers School of Communication and Information hosts lecture on social media's importance to activism

Photo by Brandon Younie |

Lance Bennett, a professor of political science and communication at the University of Washington, spoke to the Rutgers community about social media’s impact on activism.

In today's digital age, activists employ social media to spur political change and oppressive regimes are now toppled online.

There are distinct advantages that digital platforms offer social activist groups across the globe, as examined by Lance Bennett, professor of political science, and Ruddick Lawrence, professor of Communication at the University of Washington, in a lecture held in the Alexander S. Archibald Library on the College Avenue campus on March 24.

The talk was sponsored by the Social Media and Society Cluster, a faculty group in the School of Communication and Information that studies the effects that digital technology has on social life.

“Social media has given real-time capacity for movements to cover themselves and to publicize their own perspectives on what they are doing,” Bennett said.

Digital networks have gained a profound significance in our society by facilitating civic participation among a majority of people under the age of 40 — a demographic that has little desire to be part of formal organizations, he said.

He referred to the social movements during the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the economic unrest in Spain as illustrations of the assistance that digital social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, grant organizers of mass rallies.

Most of the organizations that took part in the protests in Spain during the country’s period of financial turmoil did not have physical addresses. Instead they relied solely on their online presences, Bennett said.

“Governments have tried in various ways to police these social media outbursts and to monitor them,” he said. “But the citizens always seem to be one step ahead.”

Even memes have the potential to help activists spur social discussion. 

“These days, there are these inclusive personalized memes, like ‘we are the 99 percent,’ that travel easily, and people can figure out how to share them and reproduce them,” he said.

Bennett’s presentation comes at a time when social media has become deeply embedded in everyday life, said Mary Chayko, a professor in the School of Communication and Information and co-chair of the Social Media and Society Cluster.

“We thought this would be an important year to have someone come in and talk to us about these things,” she said. “With everything that is happening with so many different social movements around the world, as well as our own presidential election.”

Chayko, who recently published the book “Super Connected: The Internet, Digital Media and Techno-Social Life,” is certain that social media offers more than entertainment. Diverse groups, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to groups advocating for women’s rights, are using it to incite change, she said.

The most efficient protests are those that integrate both activity on social media and face-to-face interaction, Chayko said.

“Social media is increasingly being used by people to gather together and mobilize, so that they can make a difference in the causes that are important to them,” she said. “People use social media to plan and organize rallies and protests … and most importantly, to reach out to one another.”

Bennett said she believes social media can restore the interest that many millennials have lost in an American political scene that has become exceedingly polarized.

“If people really begin to see politics in a somewhat more positive force, social media will help people engage with them,” he said. “It is already helping people following Donald Trump and the young people following Bernie Sanders engage.”

Attendees valued the connotations around social media presented by Bennett and acknowledged the substantial role that it has in their lives.

“I use it to keep in touch with my family overseas,” said Alexandria Russomano, a graduate student in the School of Communication and Information. “Mainly because I have some family in Sicily, Italy.”

For Russomano, social media can also be a professional tool, as her last job required the use of it.

Bindi Saikia, also a graduate student in the School of Communication and Information, said that digital platforms allow her to stay connected with her friends and family back in her native India.

“Social media is driving communication across borders,” she said. “It is bringing people together and it is connecting people across a much wider platform.”

Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez

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