Meet the Activists Using Social Media to Turn Hashtags Into Rallying Cries

Influential activists are now using social media for issues they care about.

ByABC News
January 13, 2016, 7:41 PM

— -- When 20-year-old Sergio Mejia stood on a busy street corner in southern California raising his arms in prayer for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, he quickly drew a crowd.

In the YouTube video of Mejia’s public plea for peace, passersby can be seen reacting with surprisingly strong emotions.

“Thank you for this man who raises his hands for those suffering,” one young girl on the video is heard telling Mejia. Another, overcome with emotion, wept against his chest.

And when Mejia uploaded the video for his hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers, he received thousands of messages of support in return.

“I don’t want it to just stop there. I want them to see my video and feel something inside or build enough courage to do something similar or something like it,” Mejia said in a YouTube video about the support he received.

Mejia is just one of many savvy activists now using social media to discuss issues they care about and making the hashtag their new rallying cry.

Social media now plays an important role in influencing the opinions of millennials, who are the largest rising generation in U.S. history. So “Nightline” recently invited a diverse and vocal group of thirteen influencers to come offline and chat face to face about this critical election year. We wanted to hear what they think we as a nation should get worked up about.

While they say they have yet to decide on a presidential candidate, each activist is clear about the issues the next administration will need to address. Issues ranging from women’s rights, gun control, the human right to life, immigration, national security, foreign policy, criminalization, and the incarceration and state violence against minorities.

Dominque Hazzard and Jonathan Lykes of the activist organization “Black Youth Project 100” participated in #BlackLivesMatter -- one of the most successful social-media campaigns in the last decade. The group pulled off large-scale protests across the nation with results that packed a real political punch. Hazzard says many in her community are motivated by a visceral fear. She says when she wakes up in the morning she often thinks, “Am I going to make a traffic violation and end up dead in a cell like Sandra Bland or am I going to be attacked by somebody on the street who has an issue with me being a woman of color.” “We have dignity, we have worth, we’ll fight for it,” Lykes tells "Nightline." “We’ll build power for it and we’re going to make noise from now until people understand that fact.”

Wardah Khalid, a blogger touring the country and speaking out against Islamophobia, says she’s also worried about the escalating violence towards her community, especially after Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America just days after the San Bernardino massacre last month.

“It’s a fair question [to be concerned about Muslims coming to the U.S. en masse], especially with the media portrayal of ISIS equals Islam,” Khalid told ABC News’ “Nightline.” “But you should have an open mind. Don’t be so set in your opinion before you ask it. Otherwise, why are you asking it? Or are you just making a statement?”

“It’s also the fact that a man -- a white man -- comes to a movie theater and shoots up the place and we don’t call it a terrorist act. A white man comes into a black church and shoots up the place and we don’t call it a terrorist act. These are all terrorist acts, but the unfortunate thing is that once there’s any hint of Islam then (it) automatically becomes a terrorist act and that kind of association -- there’s a double standard,” Mohamed Ali, the communications and social media manager for the United Muslim Relief foundation, told “Nightline.”

On the other hand, David Bozell, the executive director, which is one of the largest conservative online communities with almost eight million followers, said the issue has nothing to do with ISIS being associated with Muslims.

“I think that we’re talking about the most important issues of the year, having terrorism return to our homeland ranks right up there. You can’t go to a Christmas party without fear of being mutilated, you’ve got big time problems,” Bozell told “Nightline.”

Over the course of two hours, the group debated on a host of issues. In the aftermath of that massacre in San Bernardino and the mass shootings in Colorado Springs and Charleston, gun control remains a hot-button topic.

Krystie Messenger is a Youtube sensation who teaches women how to shoot. She argues that the government should focus on the shooters and not guns.

“If someone wants to do you harm, they’re going to cause you harm whether they have a firearm or a spoon” she told "Nightline."

Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and now a gun control activist for disagrees. “When someone comes into a classroom with a spoon and kills a bunch of people then we can talk about this,” he told "Nightline."

Kamal Essaheb, a member of the National Immigration Law Center, said fear of terrorism is an opportunity for, “Americans to test ourselves.” Essaheb said American should open its doors to refugees, “We are founded by immigrants, right? And I think if we allow fear to take over then we are missing the opportunity to remind ourselves what it means to be American,” he told "Nightline." “This is a place that you go when no one else will give you that opportunity.”

On the subject of national security, Will Ackerly, a former NSA analyst, and Jack Blakely of the Young Republican National Federation both agree that it’s not worth sacrificing the privacy of the individual, but they also both consider Edward Snowden a traitor.

“I think he was naive at best,” Ackerly said. “I’m confused at why if he was a true patriot, he would do what he did.”

Blakely said Snowden’s decision to release national intelligence, “cuts us off at the knees and open us to great risk.”

But the most divisive issue? Abortion.

Lila Rose, one of the new faces of the anti-abortion movement whose organization Live Action has over one million Facebook followers, called Planned Parenthood “the biggest abortion chain in the country.”

“It’s the biggest healthcare provider for women in the country,” Elizabeth Plank, a self-described super feminist known for her online activism and her web series, “Flip the Script,” countered. “Planned Parenthood actually prevents abortion. If you shut down Planned Parenthood, you can bet dollars over doughnuts that the rate of abortion is going to go up in this country and the rate of dangerous abortions that puts women’s health and lives at risk.”

“Over half of [Live Action’s followers] are young people who are in their teens and early 20’s, and that’s an increasing demographic, as millennials identify as pro-life. We have the technology. We see the window to the womb. It’s not just rhetoric. It’s actually reality. This is a human life,” Rose told “Nightline.”

While they may not share the same opinions, the activists say that they hold the freedom to exchange ideas and to express themselves in the highest esteem. They all believe that it’s what will help them shape their version of the American Dream.

“I think that a lot of what makes America great is the fact that we can all sit in this room and might not agree on everything,” Annie Clark, a sexual assault survivor and the co-founder of the survivor advocacy group, End Rape on Campus, told “Nightline.” “But we can have a civil conversation and sometimes that’s not reflected in what we see on TV.”

And now it’s your turn. Please visit the "Nightline" Facebook page and tell us what you think are the most important issues facing our nation today.