#GlobalJustice: Learning and activism through social media

By Madeleine Le Bourdon

In an era of ‘Fake News’ and polarised mainstream media, is social media educating young people or exacerbating misconceptions on global injustices? At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, we saw an acceleration of online social justice campaigns, with localised injustices connecting to global audiences. With this traction came an evolution of the way these campaigns engaged users. Accounts and posts dedicated to educating on social injustices through infographics, threads and audio-visuals trended widely.

In 30-second clips you could learn about White Supremacy, six slides could clue you in on the farmers’ protests in India, following a Twitter thread could brief you on social housing inequalities in the UK. We can debate the accuracy of these accounts and draw the same conclusion many have come to before: social media is a platform for a pluriverse of opinions. At the same time, it is fast becoming the most immediate medium in which we are exposed to global challenges. So, what I really wanted to find out was: how were young people engaging with global social justice issues through these platforms? And can we classify these engagements as sites for informal learning? Research from focus groups with teenagers across the UK yielded three key findings: young people are extremely cautious about trusting information on social media; exposure to lived-experience through social media creates affective learning; and social media provides a catalyst for further learning and activism.

‘Bots and trolls- it all comes down to caution and judgement’

In spite of every focus group in this study emphasising how ‘bad’ social media is for mental health, the majority of the young people I spoke to reported high-levels of engagement with social media- for some 12-18 hours a day on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Yet, all focus groups expressed extreme caution and an astute understanding in navigating ‘bots and trolls’. Two patterns in our conversation within the focus groups on navigating social justice issues online reflect this; how to evaluate the sources to trust, and anxiety in sharing misinformation. Accounts having a ‘verified’ status was only important for a small number and the older the teenagers were, the more confidence they placed in the blue ticks. Instead, they tended to trust content if it was shared by someone they knew personally or deemed trustworthy.

Despite reading, ‘liking’ or following educational accounts, many of the young people either never or rarely posted, or re-shared content for fear they would be spreading misinformation. We are often said to exist in echo-chambers online, so only sharing content from people that you know both follows and reinforces this practice. And yet interestingly, when they did (re)share, it was not to post facts or statistics, but to share lived-experiences of global injustices from incidents of racial micro-aggressions to visuals of eroding land near someone’s home. The personal nature of these accounts cut through the statistics and soundbites they had encountered in schooling or mainstream media, exposing the user to the lives behind the numbers. In doing so, these personal accounts created an affective learning experience of global justice issues.

This is not to deny that social media is full of extreme and confusing narratives for young people, but rather to suggest that we must a.) give them credit for exercising caution, b.) recognise that they are going to be exposed to global justice issues online anyway, and c.) acknowledge that there is merit in seeing the real lives behind the surface of mainstream knowledge sources.  

‘It gave me a different outlook, I saw the experience directly from their account’

So, what global justice issues are young people exposed to? In short, a plethora. From the climate emergency to fat activism, LGBTQ rights to food insecurity, topics traversed social/political/cultural injustices both around the world and very locally to them. Yet, two key topics dominated discussion across all groups: racial inequality and sexual harassment. This is perhaps unsurprising, mirroring two major news stories that dominated news in the UK in 2020/2021 generating waves of social media activism: the murder of George Floyd and subsequent escalation of Black Lives Matter protest, and the murder of Sarah Everard by a Met police officer. Repeatedly discussed across all focus groups were the personal stories that flooded their social media threads.

Personal stories such as those shared during these heightened moments hit on issues close to many of the group members or their immediate community, compelling them to ‘like’, comment or (re)share a post. For others in the groups, if the personal account caused an emotive reaction, or as one student said: ‘if it hits a spot in my body [thumps chest]’, they too engaged or shared. Being exposed to lived-experience created an opportunity for the viewer/reader to see an alternative perspective, to reflect on their own views and of those in their community

Motivations for these engagements were to both show solidarity and spread awareness of the realities of these injustices. Many of the young people spoke of how the accounts they watched or read were not reflected in mainstream media or in their classrooms, even if the issue or topic had been covered. As one student stated: ‘I knew racism was still a big thing in the world but hearing people and friends as well talking about it online, it makes you realise that is still very much here’. In (re) sharing, posting or liking, they felt they were helping others to be more informed or open up to an alternative perspective. The young people were taking agency in their own learning, initiative in what they wanted to do with that knowledge and were harnessing it to educate others too. Such independent or peer learning is wholly advocated for in educational spaces, and thus engagement across social media could also be seen as an effective space for informal learning. It opens an informal space for critical thinking and self-reflexivity that is being increasingly stifled or policed in mainstream education.

‘Social media started the conversation, it was an awakening in a way’

It is important to mention that only a minority of the young people saw social media as a space for direct learning about global justice issues. Their caution in trusting online sources meant that they were wary of relying on such content for their understanding of such complex global issues. Instead, social media and the lived-experiences they were exposed to online served as a catalyst for informal learning and independent research. A prime example of this can be seen in the account of one young person in London;

‘When the Edward Colston statue was torn down, I was so confused about who he was. So I looked it up and realized he was a slave trader and saw this word ‘colonialism’. I asked my mum about it… turned out my grandparents were colonised. So I guess, without seeing that on Instagram I would have not totally understood but I did my own research… I had that conversation and I saw what it meant to me’

The powerful visual of the statue falling cut through the Eurocentric, restricted curricula that many students are exposed to in mainstream education setting in the UK.

By disrupting traditional media and curriculum, content on social media opens students up to areas of the world, communities and topics they do not necessarily engage with in their everyday life or are too afraid to approach without a prompt. In the above example, the imagery provoked curiosity, stimulated independent research and ignited a conversation that made the student see themselves in relation to the global issue.

Across all groups young people spoke of how social media stimulated challenging conversations and uncomfortable questions, both reflectively and with others. In igniting their curiosity, social media therefore leads to them to turn to their community for further information or provides a talking point for discussion. In some cases, this can be addressing subjects which may have felt too loaded to approach such as race, sexual harassment and gender identification. Or simply, it might have drawn their awareness to a topic they had never encountered. The older teens spoke about resources they had been signposted to through social media and gave examples of how they had found articles/podcasts/documentaries that educated them on global injustices.

Conversations, sign posting and opportunity for reflexivity all reflects the growing conversation around informal spaces for learning in the everyday as emancipatory educational sites for change. This is not to say that young people should be exclusively learning about global justice issues through social media, but to recognise that they are being exposed to such topics online. The power in social media for understanding global injustices is through accounts of lived-experience, connecting the learner more intimately with the topic and slicing through mainstream knowledge sources. For better or for worse, as educators we must acknowledge the role social media is playing in shaping understandings of global injustice and adapt our pedagogical approaches to both embrace and equip students with skills to navigate the ambivalent nature of social media.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Madeleine Le Bourdon is a Lecturer in the Politics of Development and Co-Director for the Centre of Teaching Innovation and Scholarship in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research critical reflects on pedagogical and methodological approaches which frame how we understand development and global social justice issues. In particular, the role of reflexive practices in challenging privilege and positionality in the field. Alongside her University role, Madeleine is a co-editor at the International Journal for Development Education and Global Learning, trustee of the charity Diversity in Development and sits on the board for the Academic Network for Global Education and Learning.

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