Eden here. In July I did a Zoom presentation on digital activism for ECO DU; having received positive feedback, I’ve made this IGTV – split into two – as a useful crash course to digital activism for others. I discuss platforms, resources, accessibility, making mistakes, and capitalising on your skills. If you find the video a useful tool, and you have the means to do so, please make a donation to Mermaids. I’m also happy to send my ECO DU presentation to anyone who wishes to see it.
We really hope you enjoy the videos and share them far and wide. If you make anything off the back of watching this, please send it our way! We may well do a Q&A on our Instagram stories if people have questions they would like answered!
Find the videos below, followed by the transcript that features additional notes [written in square brackets].
Hi everyone, I’m Eden Szymura. I’m one of the Co-Founders of MEDUSA; thanks for tuning into this IGTV on digital activism. Just a heads up that I’ve got my laptop right next to me, so when I’m looking down, that’s what I’m doing. You can find me over on Twitter and Instagram @edenszymura as well, if you want to follow me.
First of all, I hope you’re appreciating these boob earrings, they’re magnificent – I think they’re great. I got them as a present from my friends at the start of lockdown and they have been greatly appreciated. So, rather than a written article this week, we are doing a video, which is a bit different. Hopefully it’s going to be going up on our Facebook, Twitter and embedded in our website to, if all goes to plan. So grab yourselves a cup of tea and a notepad; I think this video is going to be about half an hour in length – hopefully you’ll find it useful.
I’m adapting this video from a presentation I did for ECO DU a coupe of weeks ago. ECO DU are an environmental think tank, they’re student led and they campaign Durham University to improve its green policy in line with the climate emergency. Thank you to everyone that attended that webinar and contributed their ideas – some of the topics we discussed have ended up in this video now, and I think it’s important to recognise the contributions of others there. If you’d like to access that presentation, I can send it to you. I would ask that, if you’re able to, you make a donation to a climate charity of your choice, or to Mermaids, which is a charity that supports transgender and gender varient youth and helps them just to be children, basically.
I’ll also be referencing resources throughout this video that you can find in a highlight in our Instagram stories called ‘Digital Activism’ (very convenient). That’s going to be things like Twitter threads, examples of different styles of infographics, and resources I have used myself.
Just a quick note before I move on to the main body of the video.
I certainly don’t know it all. I’m just imparting my knowledge I learnt at university, or that I have actively sought out myself, and I’m just sharing that with you. On that note, as much as I actively try to educate myself, if you think I’ve said something insensitive or if I’ve missed something really obvious, by all means drop MEDUSA a DM. I’d be really grateful and up for listening. I’d also really encourage you to do further research yourself and have a dwell on what works for you and what doesn’t.
We’d be so appreciative if you share this video far and wide, and also reach out if you have any questions. We’d love to connect with our followers; we really want to build a community here at MEDUSA so, by all means interact with this video! We’re trying lots of new things, this IGTV is a first for us, and if it gets a good response, there’s a strong chance we’ll do another one.
Eden’s Background (03:17)
So, anyway, onto digital activism. Firstly a bit about me and my background. So my relationship to digital activism is heavily linked to the arts and also student activism. As well as launching MEDUSA with Emily Walters, I’ve been Campaigns Officer and Publicity Officer for Durham University Amnesty International, I’ve also been Arts and Graphics Coordinator for ECO DU and Co-President of Butler Media Society. All of these roles have been very varied, but I’ve been quite heavily involved with designing visual content for campaigns and events. So, for example, I designed the Durham University Climate STrike Graphics [back in November 2019], which I’m very proud to say reached over 24,000 people. I’ve also been involved with the delivery of these events and campaigns, for example live music fundraisers and exhibitions. That’s my personal background and experience.
Social Media as a Tool (04:14)
I’ve learnt that social media is a wonderful tool for disseminating information, regardless of whether there is a physical event you want people to attend or not. I’m a strong believer that whatever you make should be framed in a way in which people feel empowered to act, so be that to sign a petition, mobilise and protest or do further research on a sensitive topic themselves. Research suggests that when issues are on a mass scale, people are less likely to act due to the way we perceive risk and also a feeling of disempowerment. That’s why issues like the climate emergency, and systemic racism (which are linked by colonialism, white supremacy and exploitation), for example, are so difficult to tackle. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but it’s worth considering when you think about how you frame your own activism and trying to make it as personal as possible.
A rather self-explanatory definition of digital activism by the Encyclopedia Britannica is ‘a form of activism that uses the internet and digital media as key platforms for mass mobilisation and political action’. I’d say notice the terms ‘mass mobilisation’ and ‘political action’ there. With them in mind, it’s worth asking ‘why digital activism?’
Why Digital Activism? (05:36)
So, first of all, we’re living in an internet age. Obviously the internet and social media plays an increasingly prominent role in our lives, and of course our activism needs to reflect that.
It’s also about questions of accessibility – digital platforms keep people in the loop. Not only that, but digital activity opens doors that were previously closed, as well.
It is worth mentioning here, however, that social media is big business. Companies profit off of us interacting with posts online (and don’t forget about selling your personal data!) and they will show us more of the same stuff in order to keep us coming back. Although social media is great for accessibility, there are algorithms and gatekeepers that still police digital activism. So, a good example of this would be discussions around the female body on Instagram [search #IWantToSeeNyome and the policing of black, plus sized, female bodies]. The nude female body is seen as immediately sexualised in a way that the male body is not, and there’s issues to do with the female nipple, for example.
The third point as to ‘why digital activism?’ would be education. So, in order to mobile people, you need to get them on board with your cause. This often requires a level of educating people about why it matters and making it emotive to them. Finally, digital activism is obviously great for growth – it’s going to widen the number of the people that interact with, and come into contact with, your movement, which is why it’s super important.
When you’re thinking about digital activism, it’s always worth pondering on the who, the what, the when, the where, the how, and the why, behind your project and your movement. Are you using digital activism to get people to actually turn up to a physical protest, or is it mainly educational, or is it both? In my case, I’m trying to frame my activism from a mainly educational perspective, I’ve just finished a degree in English Literature from Durham University and I think it would be such a shame if the knowledge, information and resources that I’ve had access to just stay with me. In my opinion, we need to get knowledge about arts and culture, which is incredibly inaccessible, out of elite institutions and into wider communities. So, talking from my own experience, I’m a first generation graduate and I also went to a non-selective comprehensive school. I only started learning about art history, for example, in elective modules at university. There are still plenty of gaps in my knowledge, and that is largely due to growing up in an environment where I didn’t have access to the academic language or cultural capital needed to access fine art. I’m saying that as someone with a lot of privilege, who is a white woman, I’m from Oxfordshire and I’ve got a southern accent as well.
Indeed, there are plenty of barriers to knowledge when it comes to the arts. In case you’re not familiar with them, I’ll just quickly run through some. So, common barriers include:
- Time (as well as energy) – if you overworked and exploited.
- Social and cultural barriers (e.g. do your parents value the arts? Does your community traditionally value the arts?)
- Location (are you based rurally?) – for example, I’m very rural and that can be a problem when it comes to moving about.
- Health (are you too unwell to physically attend arts events or be in education?) [also important to consider invisible illnesses, spaces that aren’t wheelchair accessible or have disabled toilets, are an institution doing enough to facilitate arts education for neurodivergent people, etc.]
- Material wealth (do you have the money to pay for resources, tickets, programmes, etc..)
These barriers, of course, aren’t a coincidence. They come about due to systems of oppression, which can intersect with one another. So, for example, people are discriminated against due to:
- Gender identity
- Class and socioeconomic background
- Sexual orientation
They’re just a few and digital activism isn’t miraculously going to solve these very deliberate, violent, systems of oppression. If someone has had barriers to accessing education their whole life, posting an infographic on Instagram isn’t going to undo all of that. That’s why actively getting involved with community outreach and support is so important.
Even so, digital activism can start to break down some, not all, of these barriers around access. Nothing is perfect and if you’re aware of its limitations, social media can be a brilliant signposting tool, pointing people in the right direction to learning in more detail.
Interpreting Information (10:35)
Here’s an example of how digital activism can be used to share information, bearing these barriers in mind. Let’s say you love reading feminist theory or reports about inclusion in the arts sector.
You’re lucky enough to be able to access that academic language, you’re able to interpret the statistics and so forth. Great. [It is also really important to note here issues with classism around ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and the sharing of information – why is feminist theory prized more highly over discussions around Love Island, for example, when they both unpick sex and relationships in our modern age?]
The more important thing here, is can you synthesise that information into shareable, accessible, bitesize chunks? Chunks that are going to spark people’s interest to learn more, or at least give them more knowledge on a topic than before. Because the bottom line is most people aren’t going to read or seek out that Arts Council England report or Crenshaw’s essays on intersectionality, even if they care [and have been afforded the chance to learn] about the arts or sociology.
That’s because of the reasons I have already listed. Your job is to make that information easy to find and then signpost them onto the relevant resources.
Here’s what they could be turned into:
- Twitter thread: 140 characters of concise, written information. You could include a statistic or recommendation from a report per tweet. You could lift a quote if it’s an academic thesis.
By all means use graphics, and graphs, screenshots, from reports to back up what you’re saying and make it more visually engaging.
I’d also recommend drafting out your whole thread before you start. It just means you can post [publish] them in quick succession. Make sure in your first tweet you you write ‘THREAD’, just so it’s very clear, and put which number in the list it is. Even if it’s 1/?, it makes it very clear to people that they are following a thread and they can actively look for the other tweets as well.
You can also summarise key points with tl;dr (too long, didn’t read). This is great again for accessibility. It also means people can save the tweets for later, if they think it’s going to be useful for them and it’s a good way to challenge yourself to condense that information even more.
- Insta story or IGTV, a bit like this one. I’m just filming this on my phone. If you’re confident speaking on camera, or good with Q&As, short colourful captions, polls etc., Instagram is a brilliant tool to build user interaction and also a community. People want to feel invested in a movement so that’s really important. The brilliant thing about video is it gives you more space and nuance to get across your own personality. That’s really good if you’re looking to build strong relationships with people and for them to engage more with your platform.
I would saw, however, that it’s really important you close caption your videos, this can be for loads of reasons. It could be for something as simple as, someone forgot their headphones and they’re on the bus, and they still want to watch your video. Most importantly, it’s for people who are hard of hearing [or deaf], it’s just another way to break down barriers around accessibility and make sure that your content can reach as many people as possible. I’ve been using a free app called Clips which is from Apple, and captions can automatically come up as you speak. [Sadly, I then proceeded to have an absolute nightmare using Clips and also Adobe Rush when attempting to caption and export a video this large, which is why this video has a transcript – our next video will definitely be both shorter and captioned!]
You can also add captions to videos you filmed in other formats as well which is really handy [I’m not sure if this is actually the case, which is why this video has a transcript!!]
It’s worth nothing that if you go on Instagram live, at the moment I don’t think there’s a closed caption feature on Instagram. So, although that video really conveniently gets saved automatically as an IGTV, it’s not going to have captions on – I’d recommend writing a transcript in this scenario.
Examples Continued (00:00)
- Infographic. If you’re good with visual content, have a go at designing an infographic, which is basically a visual graphic with information on (quite self-explanatory). So you may have seen some of these on MEDUSA, for example with our Women in Music posts or about gender inequality in the cultural sector. These are really easily shareable via all social media platforms, particularly Instagram stories.
Again, it’s worth considering how to make your graphics inclusive. In the highlights there will be a couple of posts about that there. One that is worth pointing out is by someone called Corrina (@corrin.ai) – she’s made a really great guide to inclusive infographic design that talks about the need to make high contrast graphics between font and background, so that people who are colourblind can clearly see your graphics as well.
If you really want to be resourceful as well, what you can do is simply screenshot a tweet, or thread, and put it on a nice contrasting background. It could be a textured background as well. People who I think do this really well are Mikaela Loach and Munroe Bergdorf [also Gina Martin!]. Again, both of these will be in the highlights. You’ve already thought critically about what you’re writing, you can screenshot it, put it on a nice background and then it’s very transferable across to Instagram.
Other ideas include TikTok, although it might be safer to wait until the company has left Hong Kong, considering the new Chinese security laws that have come into place. Here you can create snappy, viral videos. I’ll include some in the digital activism highlight again.
Then there’s also YouTube, although here videos tend to be slicker than on IGTV and TikTok so you might want to brush up on your video editing skills. However, in this new coronavirus era, you definitely just record a panel discussion or interview on Zoom and then upload it straight to YouTube. I’ve seen this happen for the press promotion for Normal People and I May Destroy You, and obviously they have big production and marketing companies involved with them, including the BBC. If they’re doing that, I think there’s nothing wrong with you doing it too.
Finally, there’s photography. If you’re brilliant at taking photos and are able to get to protests for BLM or climate strikes, for example, use your skills! Good images really can make all the difference in terms of building a credible movement and convincing people to take you seriously. However, unless you’ve got explicit permission from people, it’s really important you blur out the faces of other people attending, just out of respect for other people.
Losing Nuance (03:06)
Okay, I’m aware that everything I’ve said regarding making a Twitter thread or an Instagram infographic, when you’re transitioning across from an academic essay to that, there is going to have to be some loss of nuance. I’m not suggesting that a Twitter thread or an infographic will give the same educational experience as an essay or government report; however, it will certainly will reach more people and hopefully signpost them on to accessing that resource if they then choose to [again, consider barriers and also the paywalls and gatekeeping behind academic resources].
I’d also say that it’s worth scheduling your posts. There are so many apps that can help you out with this. These are great if you have the memory of a sieve or you want to sit down at the beginning of the week and prepare your content in one go, it’s just going to save you a lot of time.
Using Your Skills and Platforming Others (03:52)
On that note, in terms of time, it’s really important that you think about the skills you already have, and where they are best placed. Social media is so expansive; you can’t do it all, you just can’t. Many of us are activists and artists alongside full time jobs or family commitments, etc.. Play to your strengths, use the skills you already have, and think about how you can best them with the time and resources you have access to.
It is vitally important to use your skills to support others. If you’re building a platform, you should be sharing that. When you are discussing issues that affect marginalised people, question whether you are centring yourself and your ego within those discussions. So, if you wanted to support Black Lives Matter and you are making an infographic about a topic that specifically affects black queer women, for example, are you including quotes and research by black queer women? Are you amplifying their voices through your platform? Are you clearly directing your followers to their accounts and work? [and also economically supporting them by buying their books, donating to their Patreons and fundraisers, etc.]
Even better than that, if you are in a position to provide opportunities for marginalised people, for example sharing your graphic design skills, then do!
Making Mistakes (05:20)
These are all topics I’m still learning about. It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am and I still certainly have a long way to go. Something I really want to stress when discussing digital activism, is that I think many people are too scared to get involved out of fear they will make a mistake. Out of a fear they will be branded as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic etc. [because of their ignorance].
The bottom line is, life is full of mistakes, and that’s how we learn. Within reason, I think it’s better to have an imperfect conversation – with a mindfulness for others – than actively deciding to not engage at all out of fear [what is key is that you are doing the research yourself, not putting emotional labour and pressure onto a person who is directly affected by the issue to explain their trauma to you]. Just remember that freedom of speech does not equal freedom of consequence. We’re all going to make mistakes, and definitely cringe at past behaviour. Your egos are all going to feel bruised, but it’s about affording yourselves the space to learn and building on what you learn. [The best way to be is accountable for your past mistake; we all make them!]
If someone [namely, a person directly affected by the issue, or the opinion of someone you value and trust] calls you out and tells you they feel upset by your form of digital activism and what you have been doing, you need to listen. They are being very generous in even expending their energy telling you why they’re hurt, especially if this is coming from someone who is speaking from a marginalised group. You should be really grateful they have even told you [so listen, try to remove your ego from the conversation – it’s not about your feelings or reputation, it’s about their lived experience]. This is tough, your work sometimes feels like it’s been immortalised online but your opinions change. However, it’s incredibly freeing to accept that you are allowed to learn and change, and reject your previous opinions [see: Michaela Coel’s discussions around transparency]. Once you get on board with that, digital activism is much less intimidating, because it’s okay to shed skin and move forward.
Pressure to Post (07:00)
I think this also feeds into discussions around pressure to post and reactionary social media. It’s very easy to get caught up in the instant nature of social media, but a bit like working on a piece of art, or writing an essay, or reading a book, anything good usually takes time. I would urge you to apply the same slowness that goes into your hard work offline into your social media. The dividends are always much greater when you are truly proud of what you have made, and you back yourself, rather than rushing to respond to an issue that you only know more about on a superficial level and you need to learn more about in more detail. It’s just about being transparent, you can’t be expected to know everything, but it’s about actively seeking to educate yourself and improve yourself.
Tools and Resources (08:04)
Canva – very easy graphic design tool.
- You can plug in information via a template, and customise that too. A lot of the BLM infographics I’ve seen have come from Canva. There’s quite a famous one on visual allyship that comes from a template. It’s super easy and a good way to get the information you know out there, without having to spend too much time worrying about how it will look visually.
- You can also design things from scratch, if you choose, which is handy.
- There’s no need to spend money on the Adobe Creative Suite if you’re just starting out.
Adobe Creative Suite
- That being said, if you’re an artist or someone with access already to the Creative Suite, by all means use it!
- Adobe’s software is the creme de la creme so if you want more creative control and an artistic approach, that’s definitely for you.
Unsplash and Pixabay:
- These are websites where you can access copyright free photographs. Photographs really make anything pop, whether that’s on Twitter and you need a photo maybe for the first tweet in your thread, or if you’re needing something for Instagram or your Stories.
- You don’t need to credit the photographer, however I think it’s quite polite if possible to put their name in the comments [or IG handle], because they are doing you a big service by allowing you to use their images for free.
- This is one powerful link for your social media bios and you could also use it for your email sign-offs.
- It’s free and easy to use, and is a great way to share links to multiple educational resources or petitions. It’s all in one place, all in one link.
- In our insta highlights I’ve included a screenshot of my linktree so you can see how it can be used, and how you can use visual hierarchy (e.g. capital letters) to quite easily show people what different actions and different buttons do.
- As I was saying earlier about taking the time to plan and schedule your work.. UNUM is a useful app.
- It’s for planning your Instagram grid. You can see how individual squares are going to complement one another, it also means you can think in advance, you can set reminders, which is really handy.
Wrapping Up (10:45)
That’s about all from me. My main points would be:
Social media can be a great tool when used properly. It can be used to redistribute knowledge, but be aware that barriers to access often translate across to the internet too.
You’re one human being and can’t do it all, so apply the skills you already have.
Know when to pass the mic and listen. You can always use your skills and knowledge to support and further the voices of underrepresented people.
Check in with yourself and question your motives, but allow yourself the space to be imperfect and to learn.
If you’ve enjoyed this video or found it useful, again I would ask that if you are able to donate to Mermaids that would be wonderful. Now, more than ever, there are so many unnecessary conversations about the validity of transgender people. Mermaids do wonderful work supporting young transgender and genderqueer people.
I’m more than happy to send the presentation I designed for ECO DU through to anyone that wants access to that as well.
You can look at our digital activism highlight too, to see examples of the posts and types of graphics I have discussed. There will be some wonderful accounts to follow through that highlight. I’m only one person, and all of this I have taught myself. Don’t just trust me, by all means question me, go and do your own research and reflection. Just take from this what is applicable to you and what you are doing online.
You’re more than welcome to contact MEDUSA via our DMs or email. Please bear in mind we do this voluntarily so it may take a little while to get back to you. We’re always up for an open dialogue and listening as well. We would actively love to engage more with out followers so, if you do like this video, please let us know.
Finally, make sure you are following us on social media @medusacreatives, and let us know if you enjoyed the IGTV format, as we’re currently trying out lots of ideas to see what works best. [Eden repeats herself].
As I said before, I’m Eden Szymura and you can find me @edenszymura, what can I say, I have an usual name [Cher Lloyd by Cher Lloyd].
That’s about all from me. I hope you have a lovely rest of the day, take some time to digest what I’ve said about digital activism and if you make anything off the back of watching this video, please send it our way, we would love to share it! Thanks, bye guys!
Donate to Mermaids.