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Utilizing digital activism will be crucial in improving UCLA’s civic engagement

(Clara Vamvulescu/Daily Bruin)

By Rachel Durose

Jan. 15, 2020 10:39 p.m.

While students’ social media feeds are filled with bikini pictures and vacation getaways, there is one group sorely missing out on capturing their attention – student-run UCLA organizations.

Social media is credited for being a progressive tool in the fight for increased political engagement – but the university, known for innovation and progressiveness, has been falling behind the times.

Recent studies across the nation have found that Democratic middle-class millennials are the likeliest population to be politically engaged and join protests. And while UCLA is a hub for these students, the campus seems to be losing the activist title it once flaunted in a 2018 panel entitled “100 Years of Protest at UCLA.”

Here’s hoping that in another hundred years, UCLA will be able to host another such conference.

With nearly 88% of millennials using Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, social media is a standard of 21st century life. But such platforms have potential beyond foodie posts and retweeting headlines.

Bruins pay thousands of dollars of tuition and fees per year for activist-in-residence programs and have access to a student population of over 45,000 peers, yet one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of activism has been disregarded – digital activism. With all these physical resources for protest and engagement, student organizations with change in mind need to be utilizing social media to its full potential in order to rally UCLA’s student body around worthy causes.

The national March for Our Lives movement drew over one million protesters nationwide, yet our campus consisting of tens of thousands of students was only able to rally about 20 for a protest on gun reform.

This was not always the case.

In 1995, without the aid of Twitter or Facebook event pages, UCLA drew 3,000 protesters to the streets against the decision by the University of California Board of Regents to end affirmative action. While UCLA today is home to many politically minded students, that passion is often channeled into tweeting about activism – but not necessarily doing the physical ground work.

UCLA is a campus filled with student organizations that preach intersectionality and inclusivity. Having those voices represented at events in Los Angeles, like the Women’s March, is necessary and easily attainable through promotion.

Digital activism does not remove the need for grassroots physical campaigning and protesting, but much like the efforts of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to use social media to mobilize voters, clubs on campus can use it to motivate students to participate in worthwhile causes.

Sophia Donskoi, a third-year public affairs student, said she is very involved in environmental activism and uses social media in both her personal and professional life.

“Social media is a part of daily life for a lot of young people, and it can be a space for political discourse and commentary,” Donskoi said. “I think that at the end of the day, social media activism is most important when it materializes as protest, voter turnout or any other form of political action.”

Social media is by no means the magical cure to political apathy, but studies have shown that social media increases political expression, which – if wielded correctly – can translate into increased participation.

Despite the benefits and ease of access to information, some students take issue with social media clout potentially replacing genuine political concern.

Megan Bruning, a second-year civil engineering student, does not actively engage with any UCLA student organizations on most social media platforms.

“I think (social media) increases attendance because people want to go and get a good Instagram picture,” Bruning said. “But I think it helps get the idea out there, it’s a positive.”

Reposting and sharing groundbreaking news spreads awareness, but it is the physical action of moving away from phone screens and to the streets that makes an impact. And if protest selfies mean protest attendance, so be it.

Talla Khelghati, a third-year economics and public affairs student, said social media is an attainable way to spread knowledge – but it often comes at the cost of actual engagement.

“I mean undoubtedly (March for Our Lives and the Women’s March) have taken form and been organized through social media,” Khelghati said. “I think there’s actually a really unfortunate downside because there’s very little commitment cost to pressing ‘interested’ on an event.”

While not always accurate, knowing the amount of people who have heard about or indicated they are interested in attending an event is an asset to student leaders and activists.

Even with a large following and media engagement, some would argue that clubs still inevitably face low turnouts and decreased activism. But engagement comes in many forms, including spreading awareness about major causes online. Using a platform in conjunction with organizing a demonstration can create an effect that many reposts would fail to replicate.

If the rise of influencers has taught college students one thing, it’s that anyone can build a social media empire and gain an audience. Mastering the language of social media is an important step to returning UCLA to its activist roots, and it is one that club leaders need to initiate.

The grassroots work of the past lives on in the social media age.

But getting Bruins to show up will require adding that media to their screens.

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