The internet has revolutionized the way we engage with people all over the world. It has allowed for people to express themselves in ways they could never before. Social media has fostered the speed in which conversations and discussion occurs with the ability to post our thoughts and feelings to any given community at any given time. Even more recently we have seen people use the internet and social media as a way of mobilization, or more specifically as a form of activism. Digital activism has given way to movements such as #OccupyWallStreet, #BlackLivesMatter, and #noDAPL, just to name a few. Arguably, there is power in digital activism, power that can be used to raise awareness to the issues currently being faced in North Carolina and food justice. There is a need for awareness on the racial divide between farmers, the production of organic food, and access in certain communities to fresh and organic food, all issues that can be brought to light through digital activism.
Benefits/Positives of Digital Activism
Across the literature, there is the consensus that internet access is vital to accessing information which is necessary for engagement in the community and the promotion of change (Bach 2013). The reason that it is so vital is because internet use has begun to affect almost every aspect of daily life (Falk, Shirky). When it comes to bringing forth social mobilization, it is known to scholars that any sort of communication media is necessary. It is the kind of communication media, however, that is important to take note of. The ability to reach large masses is necessary in order to increase democratic interaction, and it is specifically through the echoing of media that this occurs (Langman, Shirky).
Another important quality of the internet and social media is its global reach (Falk, Langman). With the internet, what can happen somewhere around the world one day can be a global phenomenon the next, and that is huge power to hold (Falk). The rise of the internet has allowed for the creation of new kinds of communities and identities, including the coordination of social and political movements around the world (Langman, Shirky). Not only does coordination occur, but the ability to simply have public and private discourse on conflicting views with essentially anyone on the internet is something that was not possible years ago (Shirky, Langman). Global conversations are powerful not only on a global scale, but can be on the local scale as well.
Social media specifically has aided the activist and allowed him/her to engage in ways that have not been seen before. For example, the use of the hashtag (the “#” symbol) has aided multiple movements in the social media world. We have seen #OccupyWallStreet, #BlackLivesMatter, and #Gamergate, just to name a few. These hashtags have created a worldwide discussion on issues that affect our daily lives (Chapman 27). The hashtag has transcended the Twitter sphere, moving on to Instagram captions and Facebook Posts.
Digital activism is also attractive due to the speed in which information can be disseminated. “Use of the Internet can both decreases the resources need and communication expense, and allows broader audiences to be reached in a short time” in whatever format of choice, whether that be an image, video, or simply a written statement (Nalbantoglu, 16). Its ideally unrestricted nature allows for this to happen effectively. Access to the internet has increased at an “unbelievable speed,” so much so that it was estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa would have more people with mobile network access in 2015 than they did electricity at home (Nalbantoglu, 16). Beyond its ability to disseminate information quickly, digital activism gives people the liberty to engage in the degree of their choice. “To be active for a cause, one does not need to be a member of an organization and attend periodic meetings or be an enthusiastic campaigner,” you can be as active or inactive in a cause as you want (Nalbantoglu, 20-1). The downside to this ability will be explored in the following section.
Criticisms of Digital Activism
The idea of using social media as a form of activism is not completely perfect. There is a clear exclusionary aspect to digital activism due to the necessary technology that is required for engagement (Chapman, 28). Those who cannot afford the technology are effectively marginalized, even if that is the community that needs to be reached the most (Chapman 28). “Several researchers suggest various factors that impact whether an individual will adopt a given technology” writes Tucker. “Age, socioeconomic status, education level and sex have each been found to impact whether a person will adopt a technological innovation (219-220). There is a clear difference between feasibly reaching a large audience and the plausibility of it actually happening. An estimated 1.6 billion of the world’s population is without electricity and only about 900 million accessing the Internet (Zhao 174). It is imperative that all of these aspects are taken into consideration when one wishes to start a digital movement.
Another significant downside to digital activism is that anyone is capable of bringing to light any idea and starting a movement. That movement could be in complete opposition to another that is happening at the same time, through the same medium, and is not necessarily always positive. As Chapman puts it,
[Social media] is open to politicians, entertainers, corporations, and all manner of special interests groups, many of which represent the structures of power to which the aforementioned marginalized groups are dissenting. This means that there exists the potential for counter-narratives to be produced that would serve to delegitimize the struggle of and discredit any disenfranchised or repressed group. 32-33
It is extremely difficult to legitimize one point of view when the completely opposite point of view is gaining the same amount of traction through the same medium. It is also important to realize that people have authority over what they choose to look up and engage with, so it is not difficult to ignore the counterargument when necessary. People can also become oversaturated with information, which would make it difficult to choose a side (Chapman 32-3).
There is also an underlying reality to all social media platforms that is not often thought about. Social media platforms are controlled and constructed many times by corporations not only for a profit but many times to push forward a certain agenda (Chapman 31). As a result, certain content is pushed and certain content is limited. This, therefore, limits the social media experience for many. Digital activism must push beyond the popular media content to gain enough traction to actually become a social movement, which could be difficult if people are not interested in the cause.
A common misconception about digital activism is that no physical work is involved in executing the movement. On the contrary, significant work must be done alongside the digital aspect in order for the movement to be successful. “The ties between the participants in the virtual sphere are weak and these need to be tightened with a face-to-face interaction in the offline sphere. Otherwise, even if the movement can mobilize its participants quickly, this may not be sustainable because of lack of trust and dedication among the (Nalbantoglu, 41). Furthermore, there are other aspects that are necessary beyond digital activism that must be done in order to affect change. As tucker explains, “technology alone cannot address the broad environmental agenda yet it is key to leveraging the spectrum of resources and fostering multiplex relationships in support of that broad agenda” (228).This can include anything from lobbying to sit-ins. The coordination that can occur through the digital realm is an asset, but it is not the end-all be-all of the movement.
Building off of this, many believe that digital activism has given way to a new kind of activism coined “slacktivism”. Slacktivism is the belief that simply retweeting or “checking-in” to a location is enough to enact change. We have seen this most recently with #noDAPL, where people checked in to Standing Rock to protest the proposed pipeline. Now, there is no way of knowing whether this had an actual effect on the Army’s decision to not construct the pipeline through the reservation’s land, but this could be considered slacktivism since people were checking in but not actually at Standing Rock protesting.
Social Media Usage in the US
When considering using social media as a form of activism, it is important to consider which platform to begin with. Of course, many times multiple platforms are used (or a movement can start in one and move onto another), but some platforms, such as Facebook, are more popular than the rest. Each movement has a particular audience they would like to reach and each platform has its own tools/form of engagement. For a movement to be effective, there needs to be effective use of the features available on a particular platform.
In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on social media usage in 2016, it was found that nearly eight-in-ten online Americans are on Facebook (79%) (3). Only 24% are on Twitter, 31% are on Pinterest, and 32% are on Instagram (2016, 3). When it comes to all Americans (not out of online Americans), “68% of all U.S. adults are Facebook users, while 28% use Instagram, 26% use Pinterest, 25% use LinkedIn and 21% use Twitter” (2016, 3). At first glance, if one is interested in channeling the largest population of Americans online, Facebook would be the best option.
Figure 1 – Social Media Update 2016 Demographic Breakdown
|All Online Adults||79||32||24|
|High School Degree or Less||77||27||20|
|Less Than $30k/year||84||38||23|
In looking deeper at the demographic breakdown of users on Facebook as shown in Figure 1, we see that a large majority of online women are on the site. We also see that the age gap between usage is closing in, with 62% of 65+ aged online adults being on Facebook. We also see the wage gap not being such an influencing factor, with 84% of those online and making less than $30,000 being on the site as well. In terms of economic breakdown and Facebook usage, this percentage is the highest out of all. In terms of online users and community type, there is not a significant difference between the three, with all percentages above 75%. Furthermore, beyond being the largest-used social media site by online Americans, it is also the most often used social media site, with over 76% of its users going on the site at least once a day.
In comparison, not even half of the online men and women who were on Facebook are on Instagram. Not even half of those 30 and up are on Instagram, and not even half of those with a High School degree or less are on the site either. Out of the economic breakdowns, those making less than $30k/year and online are on Instagram at a higher percentage than the other breakdowns, but still not even at half of the percentage than they were on Facebook. When it comes to Twitter, all of the usage percentages are lower than that of Instagram with the exception of those 50-64 years old and 65+, with an increase in 3% and 2%, respectively.
Aside from which platform is more used than the other, all sites have more women using them than men. For all sites, the 18-29 age group is the largest group using the site. The biggest economic group using each site are those making less than $30k a year. Aside from Facebook, those online and in urban areas have a larger presence on the social media site. While not a direct analysis of race per each social media usage site, a survey looking at the change in usage from 2005-2015 showed that 6% of African-Americans, 7% of whites and 10% of Hispanics used social networking sites. Today, those figures stand at 56% of African-Americans and 65% of both whites and Hispanics” (Pew Research Center 2015, 8). This racial breakdown not only shows the overall increase in use in social media, but also shows that as a nation the gaps between race are not as big as might have been expected. This could vary by social media sit.
Environmental, Farm & Food Justice
Figure 2: Racial Breakdown of Farms in North Carolina
|Race||Number of Farms|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||874|
|Pacific Islander of Hawai’i Native||7|
|Spanish, Latina/o or Hispanic||667|
There are over 50,000 farms in the state of North Carolina (USDA). Out of all of those farms, only 338 are certified organic, non-certified organic, or transitioning to becoming organic (USDA). That means that only 0.006% of all farms in North Carolina are producing organic food (USDA). In the entire state, there are only 256 farmers markets (USDA). In terms of farmers and racial breakdowns, people of color make up only 0.06% of all farms (See Figure 2) (USDA). There are very clear disconnects and problems that arise with these numbers, and all of these problems make up an aspect of the Food Justice Movement. What we see is a clear disconnect between industrial farming and organic farming, between the availability of fresh food markets and chain supermarkets, and finally between farmers of color and white farmers.
In her book “The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming,” Natasha Bowens recollects the history of land ownership in America. As she explains, the history of land ownership begins with no concept of land ownership at all, with Indigenous people roaming the land freely, hunting and gathering (Bowens 2015, 9). As time went on and the Europeans settled on this land, the native people were pushed out and left to watch the Europeans draw boundaries and claim the land as their own (Bowens 2015, 9). Every division that we know today, whether that be state divisions, county divisions, private/public land, park land, etc, was made as an act of power (Bowens 2015, 9).
What we also see as a part of this history is the African-American population being used as the force of labor making the white population profit off of this land that they took and divided for themselves. Even when free, the previously-enslaved population was given the opportunity to work on land of their “own”, but they never actually owned the land they worked on (Bowens 2015, 9). As Bowens writes,
Black landownership makes up less than one percent of all privately owned rural land in the United States. Many more Black Americans farm, but do not hold title to the land they till. Japanese American landowners also lost much of their land when deported to internment camps during World War II, and now they belong to the smallest percentage of farmer/landowners in the country” (2015, 9).
What we see is a history of oppression and racism. This history continues today, with the government favoring big corporations and farms and leaving small farmers behind. All of these issues play a big part in who is able to farm and who is not.
When it comes to access to fresh and organic food, what we are talking about is the issue of food security. What we see today are communities with high levels of diet-related diseases, specifically in areas where all they have access to are fast-food restaurants, corner stores, and supermarket selling inferior-quality fruits and vegetables (Holt-Giménez 2011, 84). These communities are primarily communities filled with people of color. Their access to fresh food markets are limited, mostly because fresh food farms are nowhere near them and even if they were, they cannot afford to buy them (Holt-Giménez 2011, 84). Historically, “the food-justice movement emerged from several corners, including movements for environmental justice, working-class communities of color dealing with diet-related diseases, critiques of racism in the food system as well as critiques of racism in the food movement itself” (Holt-Giménez 2011, 88). The mainstream food movement, the one that was telling America to boycott fast food and buy organic instead, never took into consideration the lack of access that people had to such food and monetarily could not afford to stop. What we are seeing across the board is the same group of people being left out or purposefully being pushed out of the conversation: low-income, people of color.
Digital Activism Possibilities and the Food Justice Movement in NC
When looking at possibilities for digital activism movements specifically in North Carolina, we can look to address the following: How do we increase the number of opportunities for people of color to farm and how to we raise awareness to the fact that there are so few people of color farming in the state? What are the difficulties of organic farming and how do we raise awareness of those difficulties? How to we raise demand for fresh food in disadvantaged communities? How do we make people aware of fresh food market opportunities and make them accessible as well?
From the discussion on social media usage and its benefits, it would be wise to begin such a movement through Facebook, due to its ability to reach the largest amount of online users. For future study, it would be important to look at the breakdown of race for each site in order to reach the appropriate audience for whatever issue we choose to bring to light. There is a strong need for change in North Carolina, and digital activism could be an important medium through which necessary information can be brought to the public. Not only could using social media raise awareness to the troubles of the communities, but it can also provide people with valuable information, such as reminders for farmer’s markets and their locations. On a larger scale, it is important to bring these issues to light because they are not just happening in North Carolina. Other farmers and communities can find their voice and as a result the movement can gain traction around the U.S. and maybe even around the world.
Digital activism has its positives and its negatives. While it is able to reach a large amount of people all over the world, it is also leaving out those who cannot afford internet access. While it is able to quickly disseminate information, it is open to anyone to disseminate any kind of information, positive or negative, true or false. Keeping all of this in mind, digital activism could be a useful medium through which awareness can be raised to the disparities that exist in food production and consumption in the state of North Carolina. While there are many angles that can be taken to bring to light these issues, there is potential for a large amount of traction due to the fact that these issues are not just local – they are real all across communities in the U.S. The food justice movement needs to make good use of the tools that are available today, and with the number of Americans on social media, digital activism is a good place to start.
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