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Insight Paper

How COVID-19 is shaping digital student activism

COVID-19 has driven us all to make permanent shifts in the way we utilize digital tools, and student activists are no exception. Activists have used social media for years and we’ve developed processes to support student activists based on our experience thus far. However, much like many of us have changed the way we use technology to learn, work and socialize; student activists have changed the way they use technology to advocate.

2020 created a perfect storm to expedite the evolution of digital student activism. Students are innovating to find virtual replacements for some of the essential functions of in-person activism: building support for a cause, demonstrating urgency, and amplifying unrepresented voices.

Digital activism transforms from a controversial activism tool to a primary vehicle for change

Older headlines

Recent headlines

COVID-19 is changing online activism’s reputation of being just “slacktivism” –VICE

Climate activism has moved online, and it is thriving –The World Economic Forum

Students are using Instagram to reveal racism on campus during COVID-19 –Vox

As activism evolves, student affairs leaders must reexamine the ways they support and engage with student activists. The first step is to understand trends in digital student activism.

COVID-19-driven trends in digital student activism

1. Heightened cross-campus inspiration and strategy sharing between activist groups

2. Increased use of digital petitions, likes, and shares as socially distant ways of demonstrating tangible support

3. Students and alumni are using storytelling in new ways to call for change

1. Heightened cross-campus inspiration and strategy sharing between activist groups

As student activists engage more online and enhance their social media presence, they’re finding new groups, tactics, and strategies to bring back to their own campuses.

Activists are taking a more active role in strategy-sharing with like-minded groups on other campuses

The recent Resident Assistant activism we’ve seen demonstrates how students are using technology to expand movements beyond their own campus.

Upon returning to campus this August, Cornell’s Resident Assistants (RAs) went on strike to advocate for increased protections amid COVID-19. The RAs successfully negotiated additional compensation, opportunities for input in department decisions, and increased safety measures. Along the way, their activism attracted a lot of attention from student groups at other institutions. Cornell’s RAs hosted an activism training for RAs on other campuses to share their strategy and lessons learned. Since the training, groups of RAs on at least 10 other campuses are using similar strategies to advocate for increased worker rights and compensation.

 

Cornell RAs create an Instagram and Twitter page, create demands and gather support via petition (800 signatures in 24 hours)

Upon gaining traction they offer a zoom training to share their activism strategy with RAs at other institutions

The RAs share the results of their negotiations which included increase compensation and safety measures

Sources: Twitter Cornell RA’s; Twitter Instagram RA’s;  EAB interviews and analysis.

 

Student activists are using social media to share ideas, strategy, and lessons learned more widely than ever

Now, more than ever, student activists have a library of ideas, templates, and resources at their fingertips, on platforms they already use. The proliferation of Black Student Athlete Association (BSAA) Instagram pages demonstrates how activist groups are spreading and sharing strategies. Over the past few years, Black student athletes and allies have formed student organizations to support Black student athletes through affinity spaces, education, and resources. BSAA Instagram accounts have popped up at an expedited rate across the past few months, likely sparked by the intersecting unrest related to the murder of George Floyd, police brutality, student athlete safety during COVID-19, and the 2020 Election.

The social media presence of student organizations on has spiked post Covid-19.

As student activists focus efforts on leading their organizations online, they’re providing more information on a public platform for other activists to access and use—and students are using it for inspiration in multiple ways:

  • Club or organization names
  • Example demands
  • Leadership position descriptions
  • By-laws
  • Social media marketing
  • Event ideas
  • Who to follow

For example, most of the Black student athlete associations listed above follow at least 5 other similar accounts, suggesting that these groups are drawing inspiration from one another and maybe even coordinating to share advice, ideas, and lessons learned.

Next steps for SA leaders: Explore activist social media accounts at your institution
Check out student activist social media accounts advocating for change on your campus. Explore who those groups look to for inspiration by looking at who they follow. Here are some examples of BSAA Instagram accounts: The BSAC at UC Berkeley, Duke United Black Athletes, Women of Color in Cornell Athletics Coalition.

 

2. Increased use of digital petitions, likes, and shares as socially distant ways of demonstrating tangible support

During COVID-19, digital activism presents a safer alternative to in-person protests to demonstrate an urgent call to action. A recent Change.org report revealed an expedited shift towards using online petitions to influence change in 2020. 

Digital activism trends in 2020

Level of action online has sharply increased in 2020

Level of support online has sharply increased in 2020

Level of awareness online has increased in 2020

 

Activists are partnering with alumni to expand their base of support and gather petition signatures

A group of student activists at Vanderbilt university collaborated with alumni to gather support via digital petition for a list of racial justice demands. Prior to collaborating with the alumni, the students struggled to collect enough signatures to demonstrate urgency, but working together, the alumni and activists expanded their base of support.

Vanderbilt student activists collaborate with alumni to gather petition signatures

17%

Only 17% of student affairs leaders said they have a process for responding to student demands
Only 17% of student affairs leaders said they have a process for responding to student demands

In less than a month, the activists collaborated with alumni, drafted a list of demands, and obtained 12,200 signatures from alumni, faculty, staff, donors, current and prospective students, and community members. Alumni and activists created a Facebook group to “keep the conversation going” about racial justice on campus.

Results of our recent survey revealed 88% of student affairs leaders thought student activism online would increase this fall. However, most institutions do not have a procedure for responding to student demands, campus protests, or digital activism. As demonstrated by the Vanderbilt example, activism can become an urgent priority quickly, especially online. Student affairs leaders know this, but many are not taking proactive steps to ensure thoughtful action in a moment of urgency. In fact, 55% said they felt unprepared to track and respond to student activism online this fall.

Next steps for SA leaders: Create a procedure now, before a petition pops up on your campus
Create space and time to discuss a process for responding to online petitions with your leadership team now. Use the Vanderbilt example to brainstorm essential steps your team should take in this scenario to ensure student (and alumni) activists are heard and the right university stakeholders are looped into essential communications.

 

3. Students and alumni are using storytelling in new ways to call for change

Many Black students have felt unheard on their campuses for years. Recently, Black students and alumni have embraced the power of collective storytelling and taken to social media to share their stories and assert an urgent call for change.

‘Black at’ Instagram pages serve as a platform for marginalized student, faculty, alumni, and community voices to share their stories about racism on campus. Some ‘Black at ’ accounts have accumulated large followings, and those students are using their social media leverage to surface institution-specific racial justice demands via posts, cross-promotion, and digital petitions.

 

Next steps for SA leaders: Engage, validate, and respond to accounts amplifying marginalized student voices
These pages are an opportunity to recognize the courage and vulnerability it takes to share personal stories on such a public platform; appreciate how great of a privilege it is to have access to those perspectives as a student affairs leader, and establish the institution as an ally by offering support. If there is a Black@ Instagram page associated with your institution, carve out time with your team to discuss ways you could engage with the page moderators. Offering no response to these pages can signal a lack of support to the members of the university community who shared their stories.

 

Another way student activists are using their stories to influence change is podcasts. For example, Black Student Association (BSA) leaders at Whitman College interviewed the 1971 Whitman BSA President on a podcast. During the episode, the students and alumnus shared their stories about being Black on campus. They also discussed some still-unmet demands submitted by the BSA in 1971 that student leaders continue to advocate for today.

Next steps for SA leaders: Listen to similar podcasts from your students or students at peer institutions
Students are raising their voices because they want to feel heard. They want to the university community to hear black student perspectives and influence positive change on-campus. Here are a few podcasts to check out:
Whitman So White !, Whitman University
Black Voices on the Hill, Cornell University
Black on the Bluff, University of Portland

 

Conclusion

Activism is undergoing some major transformations brought about by COVID-19—but they will continue even after the pandemic subsides. Students will continue to use the strategies that brought them success during the pandemic, like organizing online across campuses, promoting digital petitions, and leveraging social media for storytelling. Student affairs leaders must rethink their strategies for supporting student activists to fit this digital-first environment.

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