Specialisation: Social Justice

The Role of Technology in Advancing Social Justice

Social justice refers to the fair and equitable distribution of societal rights, opportunities, and privileges (Premdas, 2016). It aims to address issues of marginalization, discrimination, inequality, and human rights violations against disadvantaged groups. With the proliferation of digital technology and social media in the 21st century, activists and advocacy groups increasingly leverage these tools to advance social justice causes globally. However, technology is a double-edged sword that can both enable and threaten social justice efforts. This literature review will analyze current research on the complex relationship between technology and social justice. It will specifically examine how technology has been utilized to promote social justice through activism, civic participation, and policy change and discuss risks and limitations.

Enabling Social Justice Activism

A prominent way technology has advanced social justice is by enabling activism, protests, campaigns and grassroots organizing on national and global scales. McNutt (2018) outlines several technology-based advocacy techniques, including email/text campaigns, online petitions, online fundraising, social media campaigns, and online protests, which have become ubiquitous. Social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been instrumental in recent social movements like the Arab Spring, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter, allowing rapid information diffusion, collective action coordination, and mass mobilization of protestors (Harlow & Guo, 2014). Through hashtags, images, videos, and viral content, protesters can instantly disseminate messages and gain mainstream attention and public sympathy for their causes (Anderson et al., 2019). These affordances were leveraged during the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests in 2019, with protestors using Telegram groups to anonymously organize demonstrations and LIHKG forum to vote on protest actions (Shao, 2019). Such networked counterpublics challenge governmental and media narratives, acting as a “liberation technology” to promote free speech and assembly (Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Garcia, 2014).

However, critics argue that mere online participation through social media “slacktivism” – such as tweeting hashtags, signing virtual petitions, and changing profile photos to support causes – has limited tangible impact without accompanying offline collective action (Gladwell, 2010). Worse still, satiating the psychological desire for change through low-effort online activism may undermine the willingness for deeper involvement (Morozov, 2009). Nonetheless, empirical research across contexts reveals online activism serves a crucial complementary role in initiating broader public awareness around issues, enabling decentralized recruitment to grow movements’ support base, and coordinating widespread mobilization – ultimately driving participation in real-life protests, lawsuits, boycotts and other manifestations of dissent challenging power holders (Enjolras et al., 2013). Hence, technology and social media should be viewed as extending rather than replacing traditional repertoires of activism and contention. Virtual participation helps inspire, organize and strengthen real-world campaigns.

Empowering Marginalized Voices

A critical social justice priority is to elevate the voices and perspectives of minorities who have historically lacked representation in mainstream media, politics, and positions of power. These marginalized groups often face oppression, discrimination and human rights violations, but their lived experiences frequently go unacknowledged in the dominant discourse. However, social media provides an alternative platform for minorities to disseminate counter-narratives, share personal stories of injustice, and build collective consciousness of the struggles they routinely confront. Through hashtag activism and digital solidarity campaigns like #YesAllWomen, #IamSriLankan, or #SayTheirNames, marginalized publics can forge connections with peers facing similar hardships to their own – constructing online “digital counterspaces” separate from majority groups where they feel empowered to openly discuss stigmatized issues without the risk of backlash or censorship (Barker-Plummer & Barker-Plummer, 2017). Such online storytelling and collective meaning-making aid in the advancement of positive group identities and broader awareness of minority challenges that have historically been ignored. Furthermore, Internet connectivity and digital media engagement expand civic participation by enabling disabled, homebound, far-flung and otherwise vulnerable populations to contribute perspectives they may have previously been excluded from sharing due to mobility, health or geographic limitations (Martinson & Minkler, 2006; Vaccari et al., 2015). Marginalized voices can accumulate power and influence through socio-technological systems to drive social progress.

The Internet also promotes pluralism and diversity of viewpoints by allowing intersectional coalition-building across diverse marginalized groups and social justice causes. As McNutt (2018) explains, websites like Care2 provide opportunities for activism collaboration across varied issues ranging from environmentalism to LGBTQ+ rights to racial justice. The website brings together advocates from different backgrounds to recognize the interlinked nature of their struggles, building solidarity across movements. Meanwhile, global petition platforms like Avaaz and Change.org have leveraged the affordances of digital media to coordinate activism across national borders. By overcoming barriers of geography, disparate marginalized groups worldwide can voice shared grievances on these platforms and align advocacy efforts for a more significant impact. The outcome suggests that Internet technologies can foster new understanding connections between disadvantaged populations worldwide to educate each other on respective struggles and strengthen global social justice movements through collective organizing around mutually reinforcing priorities.

Effecting Policy and Legal Change

Technology has proven capacity to effect tangible policy, legislative and legal changes to remedy societal injustice. As McNutt (2018) points out, online hacktivist collectives like Anonymous often undertake radical advocacy approaches like DDoS attacks that overwhelm and turn off websites through excessive traffic and hacking confidential databases to publicize secret information. Similarly, Chartrand (2021) explains how, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian prison abolition groups leveraged Twitter campaigns and online fundraising drives to pressure the government to secure the release of inmates, given the amplified risks of viral spread in confined carceral facilities. Their hashtag activism went viral, and accumulating social media pressure ultimately led to some progressive legal reforms, including releasing low-risk prisoners through parole. These cases demonstrate how technology-based activism tactics allow rapid mobilization and coordinated responses to evolving social issues or crises. By leveraging these tools to sway public opinion and convince authorities, marginalized groups can prompt institutional changes to policy, legislation and legal remedies to address injustice.

Such online tactics allow speedy responses to rapidly evolving social issues and crises fueled by technology. Amid the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests against racist police brutality in 2020, countless smartphone recordings documented incidents of excessive force against peaceful protestors. The videos circulated virally online to millions within hours, with immediacy and visceral impact harnessing public outrage to force police accountability and trigger policy reviews of law enforcement ranging from bans on chokeholds to reallocating budgets towards community development (Anderson et al., 2019). The videos provided indisputable visual evidence substantiating the lived realities of police injustice that African Americans have always decried but were systematically ignored. Instant archiving and disseminating such digital records verifying real-life injustice supplies activists with urgent advocacy tools to convince authorities of the need for legal remedies and policy reforms. Marginalized publics can rapidly influence legislative outcomes through coordinated activism leveraging sociotechnical systems.

Risks and Limitations

Despite the vast potential of technologies for enabling social justice, prevailing platforms still embed many societal inequalities and biases in their very designs that constrain possibilities for activist organizing (Gilligan, 2011; Gillespie, 2010). Critics caution that, too often, feel-good yet superficial digital activism through online petitions or hashtag campaigns merely focuses on individual cathartic acts of “slacktivism” rather than coordinated efforts demanding systematic change (Morozov, 2009). Moreover, under the guise of protecting national security, state surveillance programs perversely threaten privacy infringement, especially for activists utilizing social technologies to organize dissent (Hintz, 2015). So, while emerging media opens new tactical avenues for contention, social justice advocates must remain cognizant that genuine socio-political change still fundamentally stems from sustained on-the-ground collectivization, community-building and policy negotiations through established institutional channels – functions which virtual technologies and spontaneous decentralized peer production cannot wholly replace nor shortcut (Wolfson, 2014).

Furthermore, carceral authorities now exploit the very same digital systems that activists use for counter-surveillance and suppression of social justice organizing. As Chartrand (2021) highlights, through infiltrating online spaces, obstructing communication channels, and unlawfully detaining organizers, law enforcement leverages technologies to serve state authoritarianism and hinder activism. Hence, the very infrastructures created to advance public reasonable risk being co-opted and perversely repurposed for harm (Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Garcia, 2014), evident through the suppression of prison abolition groups. The evidence demonstrates how technological features and digitally mediated tactics supporters introduce can be dangerously turned against them. It necessitates thoughtful oversight around socio-technical developments to mitigate misuse.

Finally, while social media allows pluralism, its algorithms can homogenize shared experiences into simple narratives (Gillespie, 2010) that overlook nuances around identity and struggles. Moreover, notwithstanding the capacity for hashtag activism to spotlight minority issues, platforms may lack cultural competency to relatively moderate controversial social justice content, often erroneously censoring marginalized users (Díaz & Hecht-Felella, 2021). So, the architectures enabling visibility simultaneously constrain representations. Ultimately, technology alone cannot resolve systemic factors driving marginalization. Sustainable social change requires aligning technical innovations with economic and policy solutions to transform underlying societal inequities.

In conclusion, technology and social media platforms have afforded unprecedented tools for activism, empowerment and political participation among disadvantaged groups. Through rapid information circulation, collectivized action and mass dissent, digital media fundamentally reshapes possibilities for ordinary citizens to coordinate social justice campaigns to contest authoritarian regimes and shape policy agendas. However, such technologies still embed societal biases and risks. While opening new avenues for contention, activists must thoughtfully navigate threats of surveillance infringement, algorithmic biases that can suppress minority voices, and the facilitation of state suppression of dissent on these very systems that were built to protect free speech. Ultimately, achieving sustainable social progress requires holistic solutions that address root causes of injustice through economic, legal, political and social transformation rather than mere technical fixes.

References

Anderson, M., Toor, S., Rainie, L., & Smith, A. (2019, July 25). Many Turn to YouTube for Children’s Content, News, How-To Lessons. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved November 21, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/11/07/many-turn-to-youtube-for-childrens-content-news-how-to-lessons/

Barker-Plummer, B., & Barker-Plummer, D. (2017). Twitter as a feminist resource:# YesAllWomen, digital platforms, and discursive social change. In Social movements and media (Vol. 14, pp. 91–118). Emerald Publishing Limited.

Chartrand, V. (2021). Abolition in the land known as Canada in the wake of COVID-19. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 33(1), 138-143.

Díaz, Á., & Hecht-Felella, L. (2021). Double standards in social media content moderation. Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. https://www. brennancenter. org/our-work/research-reports/double-standards-socialmedia-content-moderation.

Enjolras, B., Steen-Johnsen, K., & Wollebaek, D. (2013). Social media and mobilization to offline demonstrations: Transcending participatory divides? New media & society15(6), 890-908.

Gilligan, C. (2011). Cyber racism: White supremacy online and the new attack on civil rights. Visual studies26(1), 79–79.

Gillespie, T. (2010). The politics of ‘platforms’. New media & society12(3), 347-364.

Gladwell, M. Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker, 2010.

Harlow, S., & Guo, L. (2014). Will the revolution be tweeted or Facebooked? Using digital communication tools in immigrant activism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication19(3), 463–478.

Hintz, A. (2015). Social media censorship, privatized regulation and new restrictions to protest and dissent. Critical perspectives on social media and protest: Between control and emancipation, pp. 109–126.

Martinson, M., & Minkler, M. (2006). Civic engagement and older adults: A critical perspective. The Gerontologist, 46(3), 318-324.

McNutt, J. G. (2018). Advocacy, social change, and activism. In Technology, Activism, and Social Justice in a Digital Age (pp. 9–21). Oxford University Press.

Morozov, E. (2009). The brave new world of slacktivism. Foreign policy, 19(05).

Premdas, R. (2016). Social justice and affirmative action. Ethnic and racial studies39(3), 449–462.

Sandoval-Almazan, R., & Gil-Garcia, J. R. (2014). Towards cyberactivism 2.0? Understanding the use of social media and other information technologies for political activism and social movements. Government information quarterly31(3), 365-378.

Shao, G. (2019, August 16). Social media has become a battleground in Hong Kong’s protests. CNBC. Retrieved November 21, 2023, from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/16/social-media-has-become-a-battleground-in-hong-kongs-protests.html

Vaccari, C., Valeriani, A., Barberá, P., Bonneau, R., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. A. (2015). Political expression and action on social media: Exploring the relationship between lower-and higher-threshold political activities among Twitter users in Italy. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication20(2), 221-239.

Wolfson, T. (2014). Digital rebellion: The birth of the cyber left. University of Illinois Press.