Photography by Stephen Shames

Youth Activism is Bigger than Instagram

The internet is political. People have been using the web to activate for (and against) things that get their heart rates up since the days of floppy disk connections. The 2000s saw the internet move from a distant space above us to an integral part of our everyday: fundamentally changing the way that everything from childrearing to culture and democracy function. It’s connection to our everyday lives has made the internet a profoundly political space: because the political is part of our everyday.

The politics of the real world no longer happen parallel to the internet but instead seem to be enmeshed with it. We see this play out all the time. This week, actress and UNICEF ambassador Priyanka Chopra was called out for supporting nuclear warfare against Pakistan at Beautycon LA. Beautycon itself is a manifestation of internet culture. The annual makeup festival takes place in Los Angeles every year, inviting Instagram influencers and youtubers to engage with celebrities and their glam squads (who, thanks to the internet have acquired their own celebrity status). While on stage at the event, Chopra was questioned by an attendee about her endorsement of the Indian government’s nuclear warfare against Pakistan. In this instance, a conversation that started on the internet surrounding Chopra’s problematic political stance was rebirthed in the real world, in real time and then redirected back to the internet, where she is currently a trending topic. In 2016, #BlackLivesMatter (started by three black female activists) took over the online sphere and redefined social media activism. The online movement came to address an upsurge in footage of murders of African American youth at the hands of the police. #BlackLivesMatter: an online phenomenon, became the rallying cry of millions of African Americans and then became the rallying cry of disenfranchised black bodies across the world. In the public sphere, #BLM has become more than just a hashtag: as people have taken the sentiment everywhere from congress, to the met gala to the Whitney Biennial. For activists, the online and offline worlds are colliding.

When it comes to movements for social change, youth are always at the forefront. The last few years, increasingly, have seen young people across the world firmly voice their disapproval for the way generations previous have handled the globe. This most recent wave of youth activism has taken on a character different to generations previous. Much like their millennial counterparts: Gen-Z’s have grown up in this world with the distinct understanding that they have been set up to fail. Gen-Z’s, specifically, are the generation poised to bear the brunt of the new wave of alt-right influenced governments, climate change, mass incarceration, gun violence and the manipulation of data. They are a generation that has yet to see a fully prospering economy, transparent government or honest media. They are also the generation imbued with the tagline of ‘identity politics’: with race, gender and sexuality all becoming hallmarks of this generation’s cries for social justice. On top of this, they are also the generation who have grown up in a world dominated by the internet: and thus, see the online space as a natural means to an end. This year alone, we’ve seen under 25’s utilize social media as a platform to incite change and get their messages across. The ‘March for Our Lives’ campaign to call for an end to gun violence in American schools and Climate Strike Activism across the globe have showed us that the youth are invested and committed to challenging the current state of affairs.

A few weeks ago, Kaylin Adamson, Hannah Gomez , Maria Monterio and twitter user @Saint_Sheri started #JusticefortheCapeFlats as a grade 11 school project. Since the creation of the hashtag, hundreds of accounts across social media have changed their profile pictures to bright orange in support of the cause to quell gang violence in the poorest neighbourhoods of Cape Town. Over WhatsApp, Adamson explains to me that the class was challenged to create a movement for change, over a cause that mattered to them. Growing up in the context of what Adamson calls a ‘surreal experience’ and seeing the violence and disenfranchisement that dominates the Flats: the group felt compelled to use the project to take a stand. Since then, the group has garnered 5000 signatures on their petition and have raised money (through the sale of t-shirts) that they intend to distribute to charities based in the Cape Flats. For these young women, their own experience growing up in Cape Town and seeing family members live in areas afflicted by gang violence played a direct part in their desire to make a change. “Everyone in South Africa and in Cape Town is so used to gang violence” Adamson explains. “That’s what we grew up with and lived with, and so people think that it’s okay. We all just felt like if we could do anything to help, we should.”

When I ask Adamson what she thinks government could do to help people in the Cape Flats: she responds that she doesn’t. Instead, she is more interested in an approach that puts ‘big government’ on the backburner and allows locals and their municipalities to be actively involved and ‘let their voices be heard’. She makes a valid point: apart from the occasional deployment of security forces, the ANC government has not made any real headway in alleviating the grievances of Cape Flats communities. However, for the foreseeable future: the state will continue to control funds and resources and thus any call for change will have to go through the government first. As a movement still very much in its early days, it will be interesting to see how the youth-led Orange Movement will grow and what changes it will impact.

The key to any successful movement for change is education and engagement. There is a common phrase: ‘people do better when they know better’. The current wave of social media activism in South Africa must also be matched with a dissemination of accessible information.  Orange profiles must be accompanied with facts and educational material that encourage people to become engaged with the cause and to do their own research. When people know more about current affairs, they will be better able to challenge societal authorities to make changes. When people know more, they will be better able to explain current issues to friends and family. The fast pace of the internet means that we are often moving through and sharing content without fully unpacking it and engaging it. That kind of behavior is fine when interacting with posts from Fashion Nova but less so when it comes to content that involves real people and real communities. Waves of compassion from people in the online space can only be turned into tangible effects when they are brought into real time and made understandable and relatable to the people that they are trying to reach.

The internet has become a space that serves not as a microcosm of our society, but as a reflection of it more generally. Social media activism reflects this young generation’s desire to see change in their society. As Gen-Z’s grapple with the issues of this era they will continue to call for reform and revolution through the medium they know best: the internet. It is important, then, that this generation continues to find ways to balance the quick pace of the online world with continual growth of knowledge so that calls for social justice reform become validated in real life and not a passing moment on the net.

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