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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Berkeley chapter.

Social media is omnipresent in our lives these days. We use it to share almost everything, from big personal accomplishments to the minute details of our daily lives. But it isn’t all trivial updates on what we ate for lunch or our dog’s new haircut; in the United States, there has been a rise of a new use of social media- activism.  

Social media activism is a controversial topic, with some criticizing it as disingenuous and others celebrating the tools it provides, namely accessibility and ease of spreading important information. It’s true; with about half of American adults getting their news from social media at least sometimes, social media gives activists access to a wider population and is particularly praised as a tool for mobilizing younger generations of Americans. 

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@deuxmoi, Canva

 However, social media as a tool for activism is a deeply flawed and limiting platform. In her book Pain Generation: Social Media, Feminism, and the Neoliberal Selfie, L. Ayu Saraswati, an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i, discusses how the neoliberal values ingrained in social media platforms limit the possibility for meaningful online activism. 

Saraswati outlines the three core concepts of neoliberal feminism as “liberation through capitalism,” “privatization of political responses,” and “individualization of persistent gender inequality.” In simple terms, neoliberal feminism espouses the idea that women can free themselves from inequality through success under capitalism- becoming an entrepreneur and marketing themselves. According to this framework, issues of inequality must be dealt with on an individual, rather than structural, level, emphasizing personal responsibility. 

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Kristen Bryant / Her Campus

Even if these academic terms sound unfamiliar, almost everyone active on social media has seen posts that perfectly exemplify these ideas. These are the same images that have recently been labeled examples of ‘girl boss feminism’- primarily the image of the powerful, picture-perfect, and completely empowered corporate woman. Going by what we’re exposed to on Instagram, the formula is simple: working hard leads to success, and money, which in turn gives us liberation and empowerment.

The real problem here, as Saraswati argues, is that these presentations are not real, nor are they accessible to everyone. Instead, they are examples of what she calls the ‘neoliberal selfie gaze,’ a way of portraying oneself as a “good” neoliberal subject- someone inspiring, successful, positive, and so on. We are all likely culprits of this type of behavior; social media is, after all, a highlight reel. 

So, what’s the solution? In terms of the future of social media activism, Saraswati argues for a practice called ‘vigilant eco-love,’ a form of collective action and resistance that involves both holding each other accountable and looking out for each other. By doing these things, we are combating the neoliberal feminist values that pervade our digital platforms.

As for what you as an individual can do, above all, try to be mindful of what you post and consume on social media. And, next time you’re idolizing that successful, empowered, young, “feminist” businesswoman, or berating yourself for just “not working hard enough,” remember that you’re only seeing part of the picture, and usually the most filtered, glamorous version.

Sophia Stockton

UC Berkeley '24

Sophia is a junior at UC Berkeley, where she is currently studying sociology and psychology. Originally from San Diego, Sophia spends most of her free time at the beach, listening to music, cooking, or taking photos.