2017: The Year of College Student Activism and Social Media Organizing

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was one of the most divisive in recent history. In a recent poll by CNN, 85% of Americans reported believing that the country is more divided than in previous years. As we head into 2017, this division is likely to remain steady and perhaps increase. As a result, college campuses in 2017 will likely see an increase in political activism and social unrest approaching levels not seen since the 1960s.

Colleges and universities, long the epicenter of many of these movements, will again become the crucible for social action and organizing, but this time will be different. Social media and social activism are now inextricably intertwined. The evolution of society and political action in the age of social media is about to move to the center stage.

Social media has already had profound effects on how social movements organize and take action. During the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and in more recent movements like Black Lives Matter, social media has proven to be a powerful communication and organizing platform. Despite this, society is only beginning to understand how these social networks are changing how we live and think. Compounding this issue is the fact that these new social networks are themselves constantly evolving just as our understanding of them attempts to keep up.

Dr. Adam Gismondi is one researcher that has looked into this change. In particular, Gismondi notes that college students must now navigate a flood of information and news, weeding out the “credible” from the “fake,” and navigate difficult conversations online around sensitive topics. Although he wrote about these issues before the US election of 2016, Gismondi’s findings are eerily prescient, as the subject of “fake news” and difficult family conversations about politics have made headlines post-election.

After the election of Donald Trump, numerous protests developed across the country. It seems likely that these protest will continue at least through the next four years and will be led, in part, by young people and college students. As a result of this increased social activism, schools will need to take a renewed interest in educating students about civic engagement and, in particular, digital citizenship. ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has already developed a set of standards for students that provide an excellent roadmap for this work in the K-12 sector. These standards will need to be extended and developed for students in higher education.


Given the centrality of the new communication methods provided by social media, the topic of civility and how to communicate respectfully across difference will be hotly debated. Is “civility” a desired goal in all circumstances? Does it seek to silence dissent or promote constructive change? How does this look different in online spaces where the medium shapes the message? The topic of“digital civility” will provide fertile ground for research, reflection, and discussion in the coming years. The social networks themselves will also need to be brought into the conversation if they are to remain (or become?) productive spaces for social exchange and debate.

In many ways, the next few years will provide the biggest test for social media yet. Emerging adults in colleges and universities nationwide will lead the way in exploring how these mediums can and should be used. Rather than passively accept the design decisions of the major social networks, consumers will demand greater responsiveness to their needs and network designs that benefit the public good. Within the next few years, how we, as a society, choose to use these new digital and social tools will go a long way towards determining the future of democracy and social justice.

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all! -Mario Savio

Photo Credit: Chris Brown, “Protest,” Original Image, Creative Commons License

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