According to Statista, over 3.6 billion people used social media in 2020. By 2025, that number is expected to jump to almost 4.4 billion. This makes social media one of the most popular digital activities in the world. On average, internet users spend almost 2.5 hours on social media every day. What do these stats mean for human rights? It means social media represents a unique tool for raising awareness of human rights issues and defending human rights. Social media activism, sometimes known as “hashtag activism,” has increased significantly in recent years. Is this a good thing? Or is there a dark side we need to be aware of?
How social media can defend human rights
Technology (like social media platforms) has a strong potential for doing good. One example is the Human Rights Investigation Center Lab, which launched in 2016 at the University of California’s Berkeley Law department. It investigates and verifies human rights violations and potential war crimes by combing through social media. The lab trains students on how to find, verify, and analyze what they find on social media, including posts, videos, and photos. The lab’s first case studied a video from Sudan, which Amnesty International eventually presented during a United Nations meeting. In May of 2021, the HRC Lab collaborated with the Associated Press and found 122 incidents showing Myanmar security forces killing people and using their bodies to terrorize protesters.
Social media gives groups like the HRC Lab access to a huge variety of open-source information and documentation of human rights violations. This gives the people sharing the information – often at the risk of their own lives – hope that their posts aren’t existing in a void. Social media is also often the main way someone (especially someone with mental or physical disabilities that limit their movement in society) can raise awareness and find others who share their values or experiences. #MeToo is a prime example of this. The phrase was coined on Myspace in 2006 by Tarana Burke but didn’t gain widespread use until 2017. In just a few weeks, it appeared on various social media platforms more than 12 million times. The hashtag became a movement and triggered a reckoning on harassment and sexual violence, which included the arrest and conviction of serial predator Harvey Weinstein. Without social media’s power, it’s hard to know when (or if) society would have recognized the magnitude of the problem.
The dark side of social media’s human rights impact
Social media has some big downsides when it comes to human rights. The most glaring is that it’s very easy for social media activism to remain only on social media. Sharing or liking posts doesn’t actually change much in the real world. “Awareness” is only worthwhile if it leads to action. In 2013, UNICEF Sweden aimed at this issue. It released an ad that read, “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio.” There was a video as well, which showed a young boy worrying about getting sick like his mother. The text at the end: “Likes don’t save lives. Money does.” The Campaign was quite a success and had tangible impact, enough money could be raised to vaccinate 637,324 children against polio. While social media can play an important role in education, it all too easily stops there.
Another problem with social media activism is that false information always spreads faster than the truth. According to a 2019 study in Science, researchers found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter and will reach 1,500 people six times faster. There are a few reasons why this might happen, including the simple fact that disinformation tends to be more interesting. When it comes to an emotional area like human rights, people are also likely to share without fact-checking because they want their communities to know they care. There’s often intense pressure to weigh on a topic right away or risk appearing disengaged from something important. Taking time to research and make sure something is accurate doesn’t align with the high-speed pace of social media.
Online harassment is the third big problem. Human rights activists have always faced threats, but social media makes them vulnerable in a new way. The rise of populist leaders around the world has also intensified the dangers to activists. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte (who ordered police forces to kill anyone believed to be connected to the drug trade) weaponized social media – which is extremely popular in the country – to push his agenda and threaten critics. This represents the other side of the coin of social media and human rights: it can defend them, but it can also threaten them.
Social media and human rights: a mixed bag
Social media can help defend human rights only as much as social media is equipped to do so. Currently, there are severe limitations on social media platform’s ability to do more good than harm. Yes, social media offers an accessible platform for people around the world to connect, raise awareness, and organize, but these platforms also spread false information faster than truth and they can facilitate hateful – and often dangerous – harassment. Social media activism can also give users the moral satisfaction of “doing something,” while in reality, “likes” and shares do not affect the world. The key is to see social media as just one tool of many. It has a part to play, but it isn’t meant to be a soloist.