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The role of activist communication in promoting social and environmental causes

Activism: a way to get your voice heard for some and something to complain about for others. Activist communication often divides society in half – those who think it is a great way to change the world and get your voice heard and those who criticise it for its bold approach and sometimes a shocking expression of the message. Whether you favour activist communication or not, it is undeniable that it has become an integral part of promoting social and environmental causes around the world, as well as democratic principles.

What does activist communication look like?

First, let’s talk about what is activism and what activist communication looks like. The answer to this question might depend quite a lot on who you ask. Most media have some form of political stance: left or right wing, liberal or conservative. Different media sources are likely to write in a positive light about causes which align with its stance and cast a more negative shadow on those which are of the opposite end of the political spectrum. Let’s look at the portrayal of climate strikes under the Fridays for Future initiative on different news websites in the UK. The Guardian, a liberal left-wing medium often supportive of environmental causes, wrote about the strikes in a tone that is supportive of the action, also adding evidence validating those strikes. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, which is much more conservative and right-wing, covers climate strikes in much less detail and a rather distant tone, using terms such as ‘schoolchildren’ to refer to the strikers.

Describing what activist communication looks like is not only complicated because of how differently it is described by different media but also because of how many different forms it can take.

Activist communication beyond striking

Activist communication includes much more than what we usually imagine under the word activism – strikes and protests. There are many ways to use activist communication to promote environmental and social causes which do not require you to leave the home and gather in crowded places. Social media present a great venue for activism, with the power to mobilize strikers from across the whole world to find against injustice. Besides online activism, art is another great channel for activism, particularly because it’s good at evoking emotions. It would be hard to come up with a better example than the activist artist Banksy and his thought-provoking graffiti placed in public places for everyone to see!

The power of activist communication

What sets activism apart from other forms of communication is its bold expression with a committed stance. Activism takes a strong position against injustice, it’s not impartial like some other forms of communication and that is where its power lies. Contrary to some other forms of communication, activism enables people to express their honest thoughts on a matter without a filter, in an organised way when the voices of many are united under a mission. When this communication is targeted, with a concrete goal in mind and democratic principles are followed, it creates a great amount of pressure on whoever is in charge, to do as the people are asking. In some cases, such as the above mentioned example of climate change, scientific findings and data have failed to yield the results and give rise to the legislation that is needed. Activism then presents another, complementary way of pressing for this legislative. In other words, some legislators can be more likely to work towards environmental legislation if climate change is expressed as something that is stealing their children’s future, rather than as a cause of extreme weather.

Social and environmental causes are often an emotional matter for many people – which is why activist communication is the ideal medium to make a change in these areas. Activist communication can effectively and non-violently convey emotions of anger, desperation, grief or fear to those who are not in the same position, leading to empathy if the communication is successful. The Black Lives Matter activism is a prime example of this – it can help white people understand how frustrated and angered black people feel about the system they live in – something that white people cannot understand from their own experience.

Conveying the wrong emotion, on the other hand, can alienate potential supporters. Emotions are a double-edged sword and while they can mobilize crowds, they can also make them misjudge activists.

What has activist communication achieved in the past?

In many ways, activist communication has helped shape the society that we live in today. Some of the biggest achievements from the promotion of social causes were at least in part due to activism. The suffragette movement, for example, largely relied on activism. In the first two decades of the 20th century, women in the UK and Ireland still did not have the right to vote, which lead to a wave of strikes and civil disobedience. The activism of suffragettes was far from subtle but ultimately, it was one of the things that contributed to the right to vote for some women over 30 in 1918 and universal voting right for women over 21 just 10 years later.

A more recent example, this time from the US (and other countries across the world), is LGBTQ+ activism and its contribution towards the legalisation of gay marriage. LGBTQ+ activism is very different from the work of UK’s suffragettes, as it is much less provocative in its expression. It ultimately achieved the legalisation of gay marriage because it did such a great job at helping people understand that same-sex couples are no different in their love for one another than heterosexual couples and normalizing same-sex relationships through peaceful activism.

Two very different examples, both extremely important to society as it is today.

Rise and importance of youth activism in recent years

In recent years, a wave of youth activism has risen all across the world. Young people of generation Z seem to be much more involved in activist communication than any other generation before them, which is confirmed by social research. Greta Thunberg’s peaceful protests have raised a wave of worldwide strikes under the Fridays for Future movement. March For Our Lives youth activism in the US rose after a series of school shootings in 2018, calling for stricter weapon possession laws. Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to ever receive a Nobel Prize at age 17, for her women’s rights and education activism.

From our past to our future, activism continues to shape our society. From suffragettes with their famously uncompromising approach and hunger strikes to one young woman who started a wave of global protests by sitting in front of the Swedish parliament every Friday morning. Activist communication shaped many aspects of what we now consider a normal part of our lives and it will surely continue to do so in the upcoming years.


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