Why teach digital activism?
February 1, 2023
By Jasmine Roberts-Crews, Ohio State University
The need to incorporate digital activism in communication curricula has become even more apparent as consumers increasingly support businesses that align with their core values on social issues. Themes such as corporate activism, corporate social responsibility, and "hashtag activism" are critical for students to understand as they enter a changed workforce since the 2020 racial justice protests.
However, some educators still do not feel equipped or confident addressing digital activism in the classroom for many reasons, including fear of backlash and uncertainty on how to address sensitive subjects related to digital activism. The following blog post provides educators with a few strategies for how to incorporate digital activism in their curriculum.
Why teach digital activism?
As Dr. Allissa Richardson, associate professor at the University of Southern California states, “Digital activism can be an entry point to correcting this purposeful drowning out of our country’s future.” Discussing digital activism in the classroom helps us understand which topics are important to your students and how they are making sense of these issues.
Digital activism plays a particularly important role to marginalized students, such as Black students. For example, Black college students are looking for ways to collectively respond to various injustices beyond police brutality, and social media platforms are oftentimes their preferred microphone.
A Pew Research survey found more than half (54 percent) of Black users “believe social media is an important tool for them to use in expressing their opinion about social and political issues.” Meanwhile, just 39 percent of White users reported the same response. Examining the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, this digital activist movement encourages a form of citizen journalism that provides an alternative space for Black Americans to correct the media narrative about their racialized experiences with the tools and technology that previous social and political movements did not have available.
Newsroom gatekeepers still continue to be predominantly White men who make important editorial decisions. This lens becomes the narrative for journalistic objectivity. This also speaks to why Black people and other racially minoritized individuals have turned to other media platforms to correct dominant narrative or to tell a more complete story.
If educators want students from marginalized backgrounds and experiences to truly feel they belong in their classroom, it is important to discuss issues such as digital activism that have direct relevance to their lives. Furthermore, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, organizations are increasingly looking for graduates to have cultural competencies and skills related to diversity, equity, and inclusion as they enter the workforce. Educators need to prepare them for these changing industry expectations.
Where do I start?
Note: The Page Center recently launched a digital activism module on its ethics training program.
Teaching digital activism can help further social justice education, the process of helping students to develop a critical consciousness that actively addresses power imbalances, inequities, privilege and systems of oppression, if approached properly.
Digital activism is an extension of social justice practices. Engaging in social justice practices, including teaching about digital activism, requires reflecting on your own socialization process and ways your upbringing and environment support or challenge societal injustices. Educators have to be willing to go through unlearning particular socialization processes that may be complicit with systems of oppression.
In order to do this, consider how, for example, you uphold current power structures within your institution? What normative practices and procedures in the classroom permit inequities or center dominant ways of knowing? How can you change this? Your classroom process(es) and curriculum should help liberate your students; therefore, how can your teaching about digital activism help provide a liberatory pathway for your students and raise a critical consciousness of social injustices?
Another point to consider is discussing the origins of digital activism. For example, when I teach digital activism, it is important for me to historicize the phenomenon. Contrary to popular belief, digital activism in the Western hemisphere can be traced beyond the rise in social media use that took place in the early 2000s when the Zapatista national liberation army in Mexico used digital tools in their pursuit of political liberation in the 1990s.
As I write in “Woke Culture,” “they were able to organize a ‘new level of electronic civil disobedience’ that was unprecedented, especially considering how they engaged those who would typically be deemed as unable to participate in such movements given the lack of access to traditional resources (p. 40). Historicizing digital activism helps students to understand there is a longstanding tradition of marginalized groups using alternative media platforms and tools to speak about injustices.
After historicizing the concept of digital activism, I then invite students to examine what is the brand message of the United States of America, an idea I received from Jennifer Sadler, a marketing/communication professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Based on their answers, I ask students to consider how digital activism helps to support, challenge, or realize those messages.
For example, if “freedom” comes up as an answer, I ask students to consider how digital activism helps reinforce or interrogate the country’s freedom message. Depending on the answers, this can turn into a very rich discussion and help students connect the social and political role of digital activism. I sometimes ask students to consider themes such as slacktivism, critiques arguing that digital activism is not real activism or stops at minimal activist effort, and whether students believe it is worth interrogating whether digital activism is a legitimate form of activist labor.
Finally, I sometimes show a video discussing Ben and Jerry’s corporate activism and their efforts to engage in digital activism. From there, I ask them to name two key points from the video that stand out and their impression about digital activism after watching the video. I also ask them to list three strategic recommendations for a business who might want to engage in brand activism through digital tools and how would they advise them to do this successfully.
Discussing themes related to social justice and struggle for liberation may cause backlash and criticism from some students. This is not surprising if we consider the ways and methods #BlackLivesMatter has been critiqued and misunderstood. Some students might even make claims of educators having a “political agenda” or “indoctrination”.
While these critiques are sometimes difficult to hear, it is also important to consider how the classroom is often politicized in that there are certain perspectives that have been historically centered, thus presenting this lens as the norm. Choices about whose stories, topics, and experiences show up in curricula are political, whether or not students and educators choose to realize this. While the following recommendations do not guarantee that backlash will not happen, they do help educators to be prepared for discussions about digital activism. First, it is helpful to create an expectation of inclusion and justice in your classroom at the beginning of the semester.
Think of ways to co-create classroom policies and procedures with your students in order to embody inclusion as a course value early on. As you begin to have discussions about digital activism, consider creating discussion practices and expectations. The following are the practices I tell my students I’d like for us to follow in our discussion about digital activism:
1. Only speak on behalf of yourself. Do not ask someone to speak on behalf of an entire group.
2. Check in with yourself often during the discussion. You might be exposed to a different perspective that is challenging to hear.
3. Avoid stereotyping and marginalizing language.
4. Acknowledge that everyone’s lived experiences are different from yours.
5. Extend gratitude and appreciation if/when someone calls you in
6. Aim to learn from others.
While teaching digital activism can be challenging, it is also very rewarding since many students are still figuring out how to make sense of the role of digital activism in society. Students want to have these conversations because they see the relevance in their lives and the lives of others.
Jasmine Roberts-Crews is a strategic communication lecturer and President and Provost’s Council on Women Pay Equity Task Force Co-Chair in the School of Communication at Ohio State University. You can watch her TEDx Talk here.