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  • Devan Tatlow

Dear Fellow Activists: Protest is Easy. Change is Hard.

To my fellow youth activists,

Our world can be a scary place. Climate change threatens a sixth great extinction. The number of people who died in conflicts in 2022 doubled over the previous year. Hundreds of millions of people are starving as I write this.

In such turbulent times, many are speaking out and taking to the streets. Nearly 10 million people protested across America last year over gun violence, reproductive rights, environmental threats, the war in Gaza and more. As a youth activist myself, I share in the righteous anger. But angry speech and protest are not the only—or even the most effective—means of change.

Social media has made it easier than ever to raise awareness about societal challenges. But simply sharing our thoughts does nothing to change conditions on the ground. No strongly worded statement on Instagram to a few hundred—or even a few hundred thousand—friends and followers can save a child from starvation. Raising awareness is only useful when it spurs meaningful change. It’s easy to call on others to take action. But it can only ever be a first step. It’s much more important—and much harder—to take action ourselves. 

I am concerned about the rise of speech without action on social media. The proliferation of speech creates an illusion of action; it is a moral fig leaf. When someone posts about an issue they can believe that they have done something to solve the problem. The illusion of action can make people complacent and less likely to actually take concrete action, thinking that their speech alone is enough, or even discourage others from taking action. The bystander effect can mean that when people constantly hear others speaking out on a subject they may decide to take no action themselves. This effect can balloon, resulting in less action overall.

Secondly, social media tends to create decentralized, leaderless movements. Think of the civil rights movement or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, where there was a clear voice for the movement and someone to negotiate with the government on behalf of the movement. These leaders and their organizations can channel collective speech into action, such as by organizing boycotts. In contrast, most movements on social media don’t have leaders. It is much easier for a government to ignore a decentralized movement than it is to ignore a charismatic leader with specific policy objectives. 

Speech is fast; but change is slow. Today, people often hop between movements, following the zeitgeist. This results in an influx of new activists to an issue without the knowledge or experience to craft or push for feasible policies in a world where issues are rarely black and white. These activists often do not stay around long enough to build the relationships necessary to sustain a campaign. Rather than making meaningful change on one issue, many activists issue toothless statements and push for non-binding resolutions on hundreds of issues.

The use of social media to bring global attention to local action exploded in the 2010s, famously with the Arab Spring uprisings. At the same time, the share of nonviolent movements around the world that succeeded in achieving their goals in that decade fell to half of that in the 1990s, according to an analysis by Erica Chenoweth at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

When speech is ineffective, as often happens in current social movements, we activists must move away from the primacy we have placed on speech and raising awareness and move towards a focus on action.

So how should we create change? First, let’s join established organizations led by people directly affected by the issue. Though working for someone may be less glamorous than founding a movement, it is much more effective because you can use their existing networks to push for change with those actually in power, as I’ve learned working with a Ukrainian children’s cancer charity that has extensive ground operations. 

Second, we should be more targeted in our protest. Persuade, don’t alienate. Don’t burn bridges with those who are aligned with your cause when they make one decision you disagree with.  Build issue-specific coalitions with people on either side of the aisle, as I have tried to do with both members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and members who voted to overturn the 2020 election. 

Finally, we should have specific, achievable, policy goals. Though everything may be connected, connecting everything isn’t the most effective way to get change. Work with the bodies that have the power to make change themselves, rather than those that can merely pressure others to do so.


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