Dec 8, 2020 - Technology

Activism defined social media in 2020

An illustration of a line of women holding phones

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Activism and social movements dominated activity on social media this year, according to numerous data sets provided by big platforms and researchers.

Why it matters: Social media launched over a decade ago as a means of connecting people to friends and helping users express themselves. Now, it's one of the main vehicles used to push political change and raise awareness about social issues.

Driving the news: This year brought a heightened sense of urgency to address inequality, as millions protested against racism and looked for solace during the coronavirus pandemic — which has disproportionately impacted people of color.

  • George Floyd was the third-most person tweeted about this year, behind President Trump and President-elect Biden. Two of the most upvoted posts on Reddit were about police brutality.
  • Reddit's r/unemployment channel saw a 48,286% spike in yearly activity, with many posts filtered by state as people ask for advice on seeking benefits.
  • One of the most retweeted tweets worldwide was a screenshot of a CNN headline that read: "Two deadly viruses are killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism."

Voter activism exploded across social media, especially on platforms that cater to Gen-Zers like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.

  • Over 700 million tweets about elections around the world were sent this year.
  • Reddit saw a 40% yearly increase of engagement with its r/politics channel.

The big picture: Most social platforms launch with the intention of helping users express themselves and connect with friends. As they grow bigger, it becomes harder for them to avoid politics, and messy issues around political misinformation.

  • TikTok, for example, has long discouraged political content, but many of its users users took to the platform this year to express to talk about social issues and politics.
  • Facebook argues that less than 6% of the content people see on its main app is political, despite the fact that it's been heavily criticized for huge amounts of political misinformation. (It hasn't yet said how it defines political content.)

Be smart: In a Pew Research poll from this summer, Black social media users were twice as likely as white users to say they used a hashtag to promote a social or political issue on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media site.

  • Democrats were also more than twice as likely as Republicans to post a hashtag for a political or social issue, Pew found.

The bottom line: While social media activism can be a powerful tool, people are increasingly tired of the noise. A majority of U.S. adult social media users (55%) say they feel “worn out” by how many political posts and discussions they see on social media, per Pew Research Center, up from 37% in 2016 and 46% in 2019.

Go deeper: The massive power of the George Floyd protests

Go deeper