How to make a social movement go viral: dissecting #RhodesMustFall

Digital media can provide a wonderful platform for successful online social movements. However, not all social movements are digitised effectively. For a social movement to go viral, its organisers need to  masterfully combine a set of digital ingredients in order to get to get their message across.

The online media hype around the protest against white imperialism and the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town(UCT) is a good example of how social movements can be strengthened using digital media. Let’s review the recipe:

1) Create a stir

In order to get people on your bandwagon, you need someone to drive the first cart. There needs to be a controversial actor who puts themselves out there and draws attention to your cause.

In the case of the UCT Rhodes Must Fall protesters, the spark was  ignited by a black student who threw sewage on the statue of Cecil Rhodes.

The student and other protesters secured themselves free publicity by choosing to demonstrate at a very visible part of the UCT campus.

With the story breaking and being shared on social media, it was not long before corporate media organisations took notice.

2) Get people talking

If you get enough initial publicity to get people talking, your social movement can begin to take off.

Whether your audience is outraged or in support of your actions, if they’re tweeting about it and sharing articles about it on Facebook, the movement can gain momentum.

In just 10 days, there were almost 1500 tweets about the Statue at UCT.

It helps to create a short hashtag that is relevant to your cause. Using “Rhodes Must Fall” as their identifier on both Twitter and Facebook allowed the UCT protesters to centralise, track and engage in all the social media discussion regarding their protests.

UCT protesters can use sites like to view how their social movement is doing online and what the most popular tweets about it are.

3) Speak out

The advantage of social media is that it enables the social actors to be the storytellers and gives them the power to curate their public image. According to their own Facebook page, which boasts over 2000 likes, UCT Rhodes Must Fall is:

A collective movement of students and staff members mobilising for direct action against the reality of institutional racism at the University of Cape Town. The fall of ‘Rhodes’ is symbolic for the inevitable fall of white supremacy and privilege at our campus. UCT students, workers, academics and interested staff members refuse to be alienated in their own university. If the institution will not bring true transformation to us – we will bring it to them.

Here, the group has asserted themselves very strongly and made their agenda clear.  As social media use increases, by using various social media platforms such as video, the activists can share their motivations with a wider audience.

4) Mobilise the masses

Once UCT: Rhodes Must Fall established a following on social media, they wasted no time  mobilising their supporters.


Using  Facebook Events to organise is a hassle-free and cheap way of bringing interested stakeholders together.

By inviting their supporters to post pictures of events as they unfold, the collective creates a dynamic, ongoing record of their activities, which makes their movement more visible.

Sourced from UCT: Rhodes Must Fall Facebook page
Sourced from UCT: Rhodes Must Fall Facebook page

5) Inform

Another strength of the UCT: Rhodes Must Fall campaign is that they used online tools such as Dropbox to share literature about class, race, gender and African philosophy. This allows people who are uninformed about their cause to read more about it.

literatureBy disseminating this information, the collective helps its potential supporters understand the cause and the history behind it for themselves.

6) Make connections

When interviewed, representatives of UCT: Rhodes Must Fall said they wanted to take the protest to other universities. The publicity garnered from their activities spread their message and helped them secure a large following at Rhodes University:

rhodes must

What do you think of UCT: Rhodes Must Fall? Let me know in the comments!

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