The 2017 Women’s March was a momentous occasion. Not only did it display the country’s opposition to the Trump presidency, but it also served as many young protesters’ first taste of democracy. For those, like myself, who grew up under Obama, politics seemed to be going well enough that civil unrest didn’t seem necessary. But then The Donald came along and helped mobilize a whole group of people who had never protested before. In addition to bringing their youthful enthusiasm, this new generation of political activists also brought a new tool, one in which they were much better versed than their older counterparts: social media. This huge influx of new, young protesters quickly inundated their Instagram feeds and Snapchat stories with pictures of them dressed in the iconic pink hats, wielding signs with assorted anti-Trump puns. This initial flood of posts laid the groundwork for subsequent movements to come, turning protests into something cool and cloutworthy. Even though some claim that the Instagramization of political action attracts protesters who aren’t ideologically pure and don’t really care about the movement, this new trend of posting protest photos actually strengthens democracy instead of weakening it.
Before I continue, I would like to paint you a word picture: the day is January 19, 2019. You open up Snapchat and start to scroll through people’s stories. Suddenly, you see someone post a photo of them holding a sign, probably emblazoned with witty wordplay or an inspiring quote. “Oh, the Women’s March is today,” you think to yourself. You scroll on, letting the mass protest currently occurring to fade from your mind until- “Oh, what’s this, another story about the march?” As you tap onward and onward, you are bombarded with Women’s March geofilter after Women’s March geofilter, evidence of how many of your compatriots are attending this event. You switch over to Instagram, but there too the Women’s March has made its mark. “Pussy grabs back,” captions one post, “Time’s Up” another. While you may have started the day ignorant of this movement, you are now unable to ignore its significance.
This little vignette is a perfect example of one of the benefits that have been created by the introduction of social media to protests. Previously, it was easy to ignore public demonstrations and marches or mentally distance yourself from them. Now, however, Instagram and Snapchat take these otherwise impersonal events and bring them directly into your life via the feed you check every day. In addition to forcing a movement into your life in the first place, social media also emphasizes said movement’s importance by displaying how many of your friends and acquaintances support it. While seeing a newspaper headline like “Millions Attend Women’s March” is impressive, seeing concrete evidence that people you know care about this movement makes it much more personal and relevant to your own life.
In addition to showcasing the importance of the movement, seeing your friends going to protests and doing their part for society displays that you too can participate in democracy. When you’re presented with an issue, it’s easy to just say, “Shucks, this issue really sucks, but I, a simple teenager of 18 years, cannot do anything to stop (insert whatever is going wrong with society here).” Even when some newspaper does a piece about a star student who, at only 11 years old, organized the entire Pacific Northwest against corporate corruption, it’s easy to distance yourself by saying that you can’t do something that big, or that some other 11-year-old will step up and mobilize your entire locality so you don’t have to. But after seeing that kid from your sixth-grade science class who picked his nose all the time protesting for women’s rights, it’s impossible to claim that you can’t protest too. So, either by inspiring you or shaming you, social media posts are a very effective way of mobilizing the youth to participate in their country’s affairs.
While increased political involvement seems like a great thing, some people complain that these new activists are not ideologically pure and that either they’re being guilt-tripped by society into protesting or they just want to take some cool photos for the ‘Gram. Unfortunately for these naysayers, their claims are invalid. While some of these new protesters may not be totally committed to the cause, studies have shown that when someone publicly commits to a goal or idea, regardless of how they actually feel about it, they end up convincing themselves that they truly believe in the idea. So, even if, deep down, somebody’s motive for getting involved really is to snap some cool photos, simply by publicly declaring their support for a movement they are socializing themselves to be true adherents to the cause.
Even if this new wave of protesters is just protesting to seem cool, that’s still fantastic, because it means that political participation, and by extension democracy itself, is something that young people want to be a part of. One of the biggest problems facing advanced democracies today is voter apathy, an issue that is especially prevalent among the youth. If this plague of indifference can be solved by the Instagramization of protests, then so be it. The more people feel as if they can and want to involve themselves in democracy, the stronger democracy becomes. Instead of getting angry that people are going to marches because they’re cool, we should instead celebrate that people are finally going to marches because they’re cool! It’s about time that political participation becomes fashionable, and if I need to post a few cute pics to achieve that, that’s certainly fine by me.
Daniel Knopf is a member of the Class of 2022 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.