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The Power of Social Media Activism: Rachel Harvey on the real-life impact of online advocacy

Deep into the coronavirus second-wave, we are used to living in a 'virtual' way - whether it be Zoom calls with relatives, quizzes or online classes. For Rachel Harvey, she used social media activism to force real-life action. An Instagram post calling out her university's inactivity following one of its students online racist abuse reached over 94,000 accounts, bringing conversations of a black woman's university experience to thousands and the importance of demanding justice beyond your Instagram stories. For TNE, Rachel answers our questions about this undervalued method of activism.

Pictured: Rachel Harvey, photo from her Instagram account @mediphis

How have your perceptions and ideas about social media activism developed following your experiences?

“I used to believe that power on social media lay in the hands of a few elite celebrities and ‘influencers’ with millions of followers. The overwhelming reaction I received after posting about racism at my university proved this to be incorrect. In the 17 hours before I deleted my post, it had received 13,108 likes, reached 94,000 accounts and pressured the university into taking appropriate action. Before this, I had an average of 70 likes per post, and my engagement reach was much smaller. I didn’t have much hope of my post doing anything significant. Still, I saw others at my university trying to raise awareness of this highly important issue and I wanted to do my part, knowing that other students were unaware of the problem as it was unfolding.

Following this experience, I am presented with undeniable evidence of the incredible power we all have to enact change through social media as users. Whether you have 2 million followers, or 2, your voice is powerful, and we should never underestimate its potential impact.”

In your opinion, what is the power of social media activism, and how does it benefit marginalised people?

“Social media activism benefits marginalised communities tremendously when done effectively.

I often refer back to the videos of George Floyd’s murder when I think about this – from one video that circulated the internet, people held the silenced issue of police brutality against Black Americans in the spotlight. Police brutality was debated in government institutions, brought strangers together, sparked global protests, and touched billions’ hearts worldwide. After George died, the protests led to the formation of campaigns to ‘defund the police’ and to the introduction of several legal bills in states such as Pennsylvania to prevent these injustices from happening again.

George Floyd’s name remains in the minds of millions of people who were forced to confront their ideas about racism, and this action came from the sharing of one video. It wasn’t a celebrity who posted it, either, but ordinary people – people like you and me. We all contributed to this social change.

As often comes with positive change, however, there is a flip side to social media activism which is harmful to marginalised people.

“This happens when activism is done performatively or with an ulterior motive, such as gaining profit or praise. It can severely undermine the validity of struggles faced by marginalised communities, and in some cases, even make a mockery of it.”

So, when it’s done well, how can social media activism contribute to a more inclusive and socially sustainable society?

“Social media enables messages to spread faster than ever before as our technology develops. Public outrage also has incredible power, leading to new laws, forcing institutions and brands to change their behaviour to better accommodate marginalised communities’ needs.

Our voices are individually strong and collectively unstoppable.

Don’t forget that most institutions rely on human interest/interaction to survive, so we can demand action if we want to. For instance, let’s say that a world-famous clothing brand doesn’t fairly pay its workers. You may think that because millions of people are wearing and buying their products, one person can’t do anything. But what if you exposed this issue and caused those millions to stop shopping or shop elsewhere with a brand that has an effective system of equal pay for its workers? That business would eventually go bankrupt. Suddenly you have great power.”

This applies to a variety of inclusivity issues, equal and fair pay, environmental impact and climate change. The voices of individuals and groups can have world-reach; sparking necessary social change.

Have you received backlash since speaking out? If yes, what would you recommend to someone who wants to take a stand but is worried about potential repercussions, either in-person or online?

“Speaking out about racism is different when you’re a black woman. When a white person posts on social media about a racist incident, their comments are often flooded with by praise and congratulations for their compassion. As a black woman, when I posted about a racist incident, I was accused of racism, people gaslighting me by saying that racism isn’t real, that it’s ‘all in my head’, threatening physical assault and comments that black people always play the victim.

I also had people say that I was brave for making these posts, and I never really understood why until after. When you are a minority subject to injustice, those who benefit from societal inequalities will do what they can to silence you. If you take a stand, it will be one of bravery.

There are numerous considerations to make before you decide to do so. Your actions on the internet stay there forever, so they may influence potential employers to reject your application if they disagree with what you stand for.

I’m fortunate that the situation I spoke about wasn’t very controversial - people know that racism is wrong. If it was about something deemed contentious, like the rights of religious minorities, sex workers, non-white queer people, or abortion rights, then the backlash could have been much worse and even put me in danger. So, please be careful what you post online – everything has consequences which need to be prepared for.

Despite the threats and negative comments, however, they were almost completely drowned out by the hordes of positive messages I received every day. For every negative comment, I probably received 40 positive ones. Some people who would see the negative comments on my post would ask if I was ok, even if I didn’t know them. I don’t say this in any way to boast but, instead, show that although I experienced criticism for my posts, the positivity that came from it made it worth it. Those who agreed with me majorly outweighed those who didn’t, and I was surprised by the overwhelming support from strangers.”

Are there any self-care practices you’d be happy to share, which helped you through such an intensive and stressful period?

“Look after yourself! I wasn’t prepared for the large response to my post about racism’s injustices at my university. I was incredibly focused on getting the message out there, writing an email template, monitoring direct messages and comments that, during this whole incident and for some days after, I barely ate, showered or drank water. I stayed in bed, glued to my phone and I didn’t make time for myself to work on my essays, extracurricular responsibilities, run my business or do any of my hobbies.

I’m glad of the impact that the post had on raising awareness, but I neglected essential self-care. To me, self-care covers everything from talking about your feelings, journaling, managing your hygiene and making sure to eat and drink enough each day. It is vital to anyone wishing to engage in social media activism that they are prepared to receive attention.

You need to consider how you will cope, how you’ll respond if you’re approached by reporters, how you will make time for essays? If you choose to take a stand, are you comfortable with your response to this incident being something you’re known for?

Self-care is something I am learning to practise in general. If I were to repeat the incident, I would leave my phone in my room in the mornings to ensure I ate and showered without distractions and I would take periodic breaks from my phone to focus on my studies.

I would also advise not ever to take your work, online activism or similar activity to bed with you. Nighttime is supposed to be a time of relaxation where your mind can be at peace. If you’re on your phone right before bed, not only will blue screen light disrupt your brain’s melatonin production, but the stress of being bombarded with messages will mean you’re physically unable to relax.”

What message would you like to share with the people who have read this article?

“Social media is a powerful tool that we underestimate greatly. From one post, movements can start, behaviour can change, and new laws created. You have the power to enact the change you want to see – injustice need not creep away unheard. You can use your voice to create positive change for yourself and others. True influencers and thought-leaders use their voices to uplift others, regardless of their follower count. So, I would like to end this by asking you, how will you use your voice today?

For Rachel’s own article on the power of social media activism,

follow the link to her website:

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