Social media has not given social movements the boost described. Nor is it a valuable driver of meaningful political change for two reasons.
It Creates a Binary Narrative
Firstly, it too frequently simplifies issues and forms a binary narrative. In most occasions of social media outrage, the collective develops a binary “good guy” vs “bad guy” narrative. In movements like the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein was the villain and the women accusing him were the heroes.
This simple narrative was successful in driving change in the case of the #MeToo movement, where the distinction between right and wrong was clearly defined. But for many other far more nuanced issues, the restrictive binary narrative does more harm than good.
In the past, social issues would have stimulated public discussion, in which participants would spend months raising awareness of the issue, publicly discussing the complexities of the issue at length. When successful, the issue would have drawn sufficient public attention to build a grassroots movement. In the process, the public at large gradually becomes more exposed to the movement, building a greater understanding of its complexities.
In the social media-driven world, digital “activists” are not willing to invest the time to consider the nuances of the issue. They prefer to see an inflammatory image or video and respond with instant outrage and moral superiority. This means that simple issues, like the #MeToo movement, that can be instantly reduced to that binary “good vs evil” or “right vs wrong” narrative dominate the public discourse. Other, more complex and nuanced issues will never garner the same attention or enjoy the same success.
It is Fleeting
Social media outrage subsides as fast as it builds. This means any political victories are short-lived. In the case of the #RefugeesWelcome movement, once the initial outrage had subsided, governments were able to go back to business-as-usual.
Just one year later, the movement had fizzled out and there was decreased public appetite for governments to take in more refugees. This is typical of social media outrage. It makes it unable to drive meaningful political change. It encourages governments to make small initial concessions rather than substantive legislative reforms.