A sign of change: Mobilising the social media generation

How protest media has changed in the age of shortened attention spans.

With an umbrella barely shielding me, I stood in front of Town Hall, jeans sodden from the pouring rain. Fitting, given the tragedy we were protesting: Roe v. Wade had just been overturned. As the march slowly proceeded towards the American Embassy, I took a moment to marvel at the groups of young people posing with their signs, fellow protesters taking pictures. Many were adorned with jarringly humorous slogans such as ‘If life starts at ejaculation, blowjobs are cannibalism’. I was struck by the effort that had gone into making these posters not only unique, but clearly sharable.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that protest messaging has increasingly positioned itself to go viral, using meme formats rather than iterating common slogans associated with a cause. The coat hanger is one such (morbid) motif befitting of the Roe v. Wade context.  While there were plenty of signs adorned with ‘my body, my choice’ and other classic feminist slogans, it was mostly an older crowd exhibiting them. Younger people preferred to hold up more inflammatory signs. It seems as though everyone is competing to come up with the wittiest phrases or the best appropriation of a well-known meme format, leading to a disconnected collection of cries rather than a single unified message.

Iconic protest movements such as May ‘68, led by Parisian art students, developed striking visual symbols iterated throughout their strikes, replicated through posters, flyers, and banners alike – a natural consequence of using silk screens to print media at the time. Repeated imagery was an evocative call to action; a young girl throwing bricks in the street, images of oppressive factories, and workers marching in protest remain symbolic of the power of young people standing in defiance.

As movements for social change come into the mainstream, they invariably attract younger crowds. Information about protests and strikes is often disseminated online, and participants react by creating media that they hope will be preserved in a digital space. Without strong ties to activist collectives, young people tend to respond in a way that mirrors the way they become involved in protest movements in the first place – through social media.

Social media has undoubtedly increased youth participation in protests. Since news from all around the world is widely accessible, it is easier to build a sense of solidarity with global movements. Activism during the lockdowns heavily relied on building strong social media platforms rather than building networks of young activists in real life. Movements that are sustained by the physical act of showing up have struggled in the shadow of online, low-effort forms of activism since COVID.

As these protests seek to expand into new, younger demographics, there has been a marked effort by organisers to capture the fleeting attention of protesters. Banner paints and sign-making events are popular ways to build energy around a movement, and the physical acts of making zines and flyers offer a tangible method of engaging in activism. Additionally, they create real, interpersonal connections among attendees, helping new activists find a space to demand change through a community.

While widely criticised, sharing images of protest media – whether via infographic or witty signs – is a growing way of engaging in politics, signalling young people’s desire to be involved in social movements. And while sharing posts on social media may be a low effort way to engage in political discourse, it can serve as a gateway to further action. 

School Strike 4 Climate is a movement that successfully translated its online following and the success of its memes into physical participation. By centering youth activists, their content is both relatable for an online generation and has a strong political undercurrent: their whole platform is built on striking in the streets.

It is important that activism doesn’t stop at sharing posts, though, and we must remain critical of movements built solely in the digital space. People must be given the opportunity to do real work in their communities, whether this be through protest, fundraising, or mutual aid, and all media must build toward this. Whether this is achieved by honouring slogans and designs of the past or by expressing new ideas is secondary to the act of standing in the streets and demanding change. Ultimately, strong protest movements must entice their supporters onto the streets, and creating humorous signs is a good start.