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The Relationship Between Social Media and Social Activism

06/14/2014

The Relationship Between Social Media and Social Activism

Is it possible to carry out a successful social movement through social media alone?

Target Corporation recently found itself caught in the middle of the debate over gun safety and Second Amendment rights. The retailer saw its stores become the stage for demonstrators on both sides of the issue. For instance, the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America organized a "stroller jam" using social media to talk up their position on the issue. The online activity was robust enough to gain some traditional mass media attention, including WCCO TV. But when a relatively small number of people actually showed up to protest, WCCO Radio's Chad Hartman wondered about the relationship between social media and successful social activism. 

Delving into the topic, Hartman interviewed Ching Ren, assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management, on a June 13, 2014 broadcast. Ren discussed the power and limitations of social media to effect social change. In response to the question of whether or not it's possible to carry out a successful social movement through social media alone, Ren answered, "Probably not, but it doesn’t mean that social makes no difference." 

"Social media is a great tool to mobilize and organize a large crowd of people for any purpose. It helps to attract and focus public attention on important issues," continued Ren. So after all the online social chatter, why did relatively few people show up in person? Actually going to the store is a higher-cost activity — and likely what's necessary to achieve meaningful social change. "If all you do is talk about something on social media and not do things to follow up, we probably won’t see real social changes​," said Ren.

»​ Download an audio recording of the show here. The interview with Ching Ren begins at approximately the 22-minute mark. 


 

Yuqing Ching Ren is an assistant professor of information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. She holds a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University. Her recent research explores how positive and negative messages in social media impact people’s perception of brands.