Photo by Yemisi Miller.

Photo by Yemisi Miller.


A few days after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Yemisi Miller, a sophomore at Spellman University, posted a photo of herself to Twitter with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The Twitter photo featured two images of the young Black woman, one in her high school graduation gown with a Black Student Union scarf draped over her shoulders and the other of her at a club flipping off the photographer. “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Which picture of me would be on the news?” she asked.

The reaction was swift: Her tweet received over 500 retweets and nearly 400 likes. The New York Times called her for an interview and she was featured on websites such as Complex Magazine and Global Grind.

Miller believes that her Tweet generated online discussion about the Ferguson shooting, However, she adds, for social media activism to be successful, there must be an offline component as well. Miller used Twitter to find like-minded individuals in the Washington, D.C. area and organized a rally with to protest Michael Brown’s death. Hundreds of protestors attended the demonstration in DC’s Malcolm X Park to hear local civil rights speakers, to participate in a moment of silence for Brown and to share their own experiences with police brutality.

“The entire rally was orchestrated via my cell phone, which is super cool,” Miller says. “But I do also think we need to recognize that there are people doing groundwork offline and they’re just as important as people getting masses moving on Twitter. I don’t think one could exist without the other.”

What once worked as a form of protest — demonstrations and letters to Congress — are no longer enough to affect change. Whether it’s hashtags or online petitions, millennials believe an online strategy is necessary to actually make a difference. Many of the under-30 generation prefer digital activism because of its ease of participation and ability to spread awareness despite geographic separations. In a digital age where everyone is constantly connected, your grandparents’ activism no longer works and Gen Y-ers would argue that’s for the better.

A recent study by Cone Communications, a public relations and cause marketing agency, found that six in 10 Americans believe social media is an effective form of activism and can have a meaningful impact on social and environmental issues. The same study says that of those Americans, millennials tend to be the most hyper-engaged online, with 71 percent claiming to use social media as a platform to discuss issues. Davis Saltonstall, vice president of Earth Matters at New York University, says he often uses social media to promote his club’s cause and reach out to environmentally engaged students.

“We’re in such a digital age that we need to create that alternate presence to make sure that we’re observed and visible to millennials around us,” Saltonstall says.

Saltonstall, who is also a member of New York University’s Divest, an environmental club focused on reducing the use of fossil fuels, gave the example of when Divest planned a Halloween flash mob to get attention for their cause. They used the already trending hashtag #ScarierThanHalloween to promote a video of the dancers and discuss the negative impact fossil fuels will eventually have on our planet.

As to the “slacktivism” argument that suggests digital activism promotes insincere involvement, Saltonstall agrees simply sharing a link online or retweeting is passive, but that it still shows support for a cause and can spread awareness of an issue. “Whether you’re the organizers who stood on the side of the street talking to pedestrians or you’re a name on an online petition, there are a lot of different degrees of involvement with any sort of issue,” Saltonstall says. “They’re different elements of the same end goal.”

Pulin Modi, a senior campaigner at online petitioning website, believes both online and offline actions play critical roles in activism campaigns. However, he argues that digital activism is more effective than grassroots organizing because it can better demonstrate a widespread opinion on an issue and, in turn, pressure involved parties to act. “Online is a better way to start organizing around an issue because it requires less resources, and it’s easier to test your messaging and build a widespread community while following up with people,” Modi says.

For example, Modi says, a couple weeks ago a video surfaced of Julien Blanc, a self-proclaimed “pick-up artist,” giving a lecture to a group of American men on how to use physical force to hook up with Japanese women at a hotel event. Jenn Li, an Asian-American woman outraged by the video, used her Twitter account to generate traffic to a petition asking hotels to cancel future Julien Blanc seminars using the hashtag #TakeDownJulienBlanc. Soon after, Australia deported him, South Korea and Brazil denied him visas and his Facebook page was shut down, all thanks, Modi says, to online activism.

Other success stories, he says, have ranged from getting Gap to stop selling fur products on its online marketplace Piperlime to stopping Starbucks from using crushed bugs to make some of its flavored drinks.

“You can compliment any campaign with an offline aspect, but I would say in 99 percent of situations it’s important to have an online component,” Modi says.

However, it takes more than just an online component to make a campaign go viral among millennials, says Daria Taylor, cofounder of Talented Heads, a digital marketing agency that specializes in millennial engagement. To be successful, an organization must provide informative content while also giving participants a reason to share that content with their friends.

Taylor mentioned the #nomakeupselfie campaign, where thousands of UK women posted pictures of themselves without makeup on social media sites while nominating their friends to do the same. Though Cancer Research UK did not start the campaign, it generated more than eight million pounds, equivalent to 125.5 million US dollars, in just six days.

“That only went viral because they encouraged people to share their pictures and so on,” Taylor says. “Ask [millennials] to share something with their friends and they definitely will.”

Similarly, in the United States, the ALS Bucket Challenge raised roughly $115 million since it first launched July 29. Millennials all around the country dumped buckets of ice water on themselves and tagged their videos with #IceBucketChallenge. Whether to raise awareness, give donations or have a fun time, the ALS campaign depended heavily on participants sharing content and encouraging their friends to do the same.

Josh Hershey, a senior at the University of Maryland, admits he initially did the Ice Bucket Challenge for the trend, but also to spread awareness and take action for the cause.

“I mean it’s definitely for the fun of sharing it with all your friends, but it got me to research ALS and donate,” he says.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge presented some important takeaways for online campaigns in general, says Etan Bednarsh, associate creative director at VaynerMedia, a digital campaign provider. Those include making the activism something fun and meaningful that people will want to do and asking participants to tag or nominate their friends to help spread content.

Following in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’s footsteps, the New York Blood Center recently launched a social media campaign asking donors to share their reasons for giving blood using the hashtag #blood4What. Recipients of blood transfusions can also share their personal stories of how donated blood saved their lives. NYBC says it hopes the campaign will “encourage others to give the gift of life.”

However, some question whether millennials are drawn to social activism by the trending hype or actual concern about an issue. Irina Raicu, the Internet ethics program director at Santa Clara University, fears millennials are too quick to participate in online campaigns before being sufficiently educated on an issue.

“Online activism needs to be informed and commensurate with what it tries to achieve. Passive involvement is possibly worse than no involvement if you aren’t informed about the issues,” Raicu says.

Raicu pointed to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which exploded on Twitter as an attempt to rescue the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram earlier this year. Though the hashtag campaign had good intentions, Raicu noted that the attention may have been exactly what the kidnappers wanted, actually fueling the fire, according to her colleague Professor Zeynep Tufekci in the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science.

Instead, Raicu thinks online campaigns that encourage sharing personal experiences, rather than making assumptions about others, are not only more ethical, but are also more inviting to a greater number of people. She especially liked the #YesAllWomen campaign, which raised awareness around sexual harassment and violence against women, because it allowed women to tell their own stories, which were then shared with hundreds of others.

“Online is not going away, and now we’re putting together different online and offline tools to achieve our goals,” Raicu says. “Why would you only want to use one method when you could use several?”

With the recent news that Officer Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, will not be indicted, Yemisi Miller is already planning to use both online and offline methods to keep attention on racist police brutality.

“Digital activism is so effective because the Internet is a space where there are no regulations. It gives people a platform to seek out current issues and discuss what matters to them, and it’s really inclusive in that way,” Miller says.