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Online Activism Develops New Meaning

When we think of social media activism, we often think of reposting a video of melting ice caps and endangered polar bears, or “raising awareness” for the protests in Sudan by changing one’s profile picture. There are also movements like “#MeToo” and “Black Lives Matter” that began as nothing more than trending hashtags but quickly became real forces of change. However, attempts to raise awareness on social media are usually regarded as less powerful than real-life activism.

Berkeley High School (BHS) students have seen another side to this activism over the past few weeks, as anger over the allegations of sexual assault and inaction on the part of the administration sparked several actions, including a walkout, a sit-out, and a protest at the school district office. 

Even if you didn’t join the protest or participate in a class discussion about recent events, chances are you’ve seen it on social media — whether it be a screenshot of the Berkeleyside article detailing a lawsuit lodged by a student claiming that BHS mishandled their case of sexual assault, a picture of the graffiti found in the girls bathroom listing “Boys to Watch Out 4,” or a post inviting people to a sit-out following the February 10 walkout. 

It’s easy to dismiss this as mere social media “activism,” but a screenshot or a post can have a powerful impact on a situation this personal. Ayisha Friedman, a BHS senior who started the sit-out, thinks context makes all the difference. Friedman said, “when you repost something in support of survivors at BHS, guaranteed, a survivor at BHS will see that.” Saying something like ‘I believe survivors’ seems broad but when you are a survivor, that is you, and those few words can mean the world. Over the past few weeks, social media has launched a real discussion and has helped BHS students better understand the nature of the problem.

While screenshots and reposts were abundant on Instagram in the days leading up to the walkout, it also wasn’t uncommon to see reflective paragraphs discussing the recent events. It may seem odd, especially to older generations, to see such thoughtful writing on an Instagram story that will be gone in 24 hours, but it speaks to the limited outlets that students have to voice their opinions and speak out.

BHS students have also used social media to express anger, both about past events and the lack of changes in response to the protest. The guise of social media allows for complaints and criticism, but at times makes it too easy to spread hatred without being able to see consequences. Principal Schweng is aware of everything on social media but doesn’t follow it too closely out of “self-preservation.” Instead, she said her way of dealing with it is to “be who I am, and to be here at work every day, and to try to let kids see who I am and how much I care about what’s going on.” Meeting with students face-to-face is a long process but a worthwhile one. Those who feel unheard can reach out to Ms. Schweng and trust they will be listened to attentively.