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More than a hashtag: the media’s portrayal of young activism

Kate Hanton addresses problems with the conversation that surrounds young activism in the mainstream media.

TW: transphobia

The removal of Baroness Nicholson from her position as honorary vice president of the Booker Prize Foundation and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have garnered large amounts of media coverage. Much of this has been positive support. There are some journalists, however, who have unfairly portrayed young activism as dangerous and little more than a trendy hashtag.  

This recent development, particularly in terms of Baroness Nicholson, has led to a resurgence in the conversation over ‘cancel culture’. When discussing current activism; Clare Foges claimed that young activists ‘cancel people who they don’t like.’ Janice Turner echoed her, arguing that young activists do not want to engage with those that they disagree with and that this is a problem. Although cancel culture can be used by some to shut down any public figure who angers them on social media; this is not always the case. Baroness Nicholson was partly removed from her honorary position because of her views on same-sex marriage, but principally because of her transphobic comments. Baroness Nicholson bullied the transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, calling her a ‘weird creature’ and retweeting transphobic memes. Her removal from the Booker Prize Foundation is not an example of young activists succeeding in cancelling those they disagree with; rather it is young activists succeeding in a small way to protect minorities from harassment and bullying.

Of course, I would agree that cancel culture can be both ineffective and harmful. For example, to ‘cancel’ someone over their views on Brexit would be wrong; political views such as these are entitled to free and open debate. Moreover, there are questions over how helpful ‘cancelling’ one high profile figure can actually be to a movement, as it can easily become little more than performative activism. However, it should also be remembered that cancel culture is often an umbrella term used to label a wide range of actions. It is not necessarily a total annihilation of someone’s career and reputation; many wanted to ‘cancel’ Taylor Swift after she lied about her agreement with Kanye West to use a song lyric about her – yet her career lives on. Aside from celebrity feuds, there are a number of occasions where cancel culture may be necessary and effective for activism if followed by meaningful change – I would argue this was one. The backlash that resulted in the removal of Baroness Nicholson from her honorary position sends a signal that transphobic bullying is never excusable. The same people who called for the Baroness to be ‘cancelled’ must follow this with support for lasting and real change to protect trans rights.

Others, like Iain Martin and Higo Rifkind, have labelled young activists fighting for progress as ‘intolerant’. If we are intolerant, it is of intolerance, of those who try to prevent progression towards a safer and more inclusive society. But this is required to realise our vision for a society which is anything but intolerant. Young activists are fighting for a society where real diversity is celebrated, and equality is the norm.

There is a tendency among some journalists to present young activism as nothing more than a trend, a bandwagon to be hopped on, with many labelling it as ‘woke’. This minimises the efforts of activists; depicting it as an empty trend with no real substance and a lack of urgency. Of course, there has been a fair amount of ‘virtue signalling’ recently, such as the Black Lives Matter hashtag challenge on Instagram, which appeared both unhelpful and insensitive. However, this is not the majority of the Black Lives Matter movement. From protests to petitions it is clear that most involved want real change and are taking real steps to get there.

This is missed by the journalists who believe that companies are congratulated for merely posting a generic statement in support of the movement. Janice Turner wrote that businesses who comply ‘by issuing a woke press release’ will ‘avoid the social media storm’. This could not be further from the truth. Companies who have tried to do so have been quickly called out. For example, when L’Oréal posted on Instagram in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, they received instant backlash. Many pointed out the irony of their ‘support’; in 2017, they fired an influencer for speaking up about racism. Similarly, the clothing brand Reformation posted support for Black Lives Matter on their Instagram but were widely criticised themselves after allegations of racism within the company emerged.

Furthermore, there seems to be little recognition, by some, of the power of social media. It is of course only a starting point, and not a solution in and of itself. But it is undeniable that social media is a big part of young activism. Clare Foges writes that social media has ‘tendency to simplify and enrage, its echo chambers to egg things on’. I agree that social media cannot be relied on to do all the work especially when it can so easily make us forget that many do not agree with us. However, it is a good place to start. For example, the visual focus of Instagram makes information punchy and quickly accessible. The ability to connect across continents allows movements to accelerate much faster than they could have in the past. Take Munroe Bergdorf, whose Instagram post about the bullying she received reached hundreds of thousands of people within seconds. And sure enough, change was seen in a matter of days. The latest information can be easily broadcast on social media. For activism this is a huge advantage over the slower mainstream press. Social media has not only allowed petitions, fundraisers and educational resources to be shared, but has also helped protests to be organised. And this has led to tangible change; a petition shared on social media played a large part in re-opening the case of Elijah McClain. The fight for change must be seen within the real world but the role social media can play should not be so easily criticised and discredited.

The portrayal of young activism by some journalists is both generalised and incorrect, and I worry that those who get most of their news from the mainstream press may be left with a false and unfair image of this type of political engagement. This threatens to prevent wide-spread support and to hinder the change that is so vitally needed.

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