The Age of Online Activism

Graphic by Lena Yang

Graphic by Lena Yang

A recent New York Times article declared we are currently living in the “Age of Tumblr Activism,” as more and more young adults are utilizing social media to help bring attention to particular issues. The #BlackLivesMatter movement and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign are the most recent examples of how the Internet can be used to spread the word on pressing issues. This method has been used in place of taking part in a rally or fighting in the front lines of a protest.

The art of reaching out

Social media outlets have proven to be a way for people to reach out and network with others about global activist initiatives. In a world reliant on the use of technology, it is much easier to start a conversation and to get engaged with such pressing global issues.

Grassroots Online is a Toronto-based web design firm concentrated on online political and advocacy campaigns. Brett Bell, founder and managing partner of Grassroots Online, believes technology helps to enable democratic participation.

“It removes many of the barriers that have existed in the past. However government and politics can be intimidating for many,” Bell said.

“So we created a number of platforms that make it easy for individuals from all backgrounds to easily contact their elected officials and participate in the wider conversation around current affairs.”

Bell also shared that Grassroots Online has currently generated 2.5 million actions on their various platforms, which he believes illustrates how the utilization of technology has helped people to engage with current issues.

“It is important every opportunity is maximized to boost participation,” Bell added.

Madelaine Hron, an associate professor in the English and film studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University, created an English course called “Human Rights in Cultural Forms” which emphasizes encouraging students to be activists. The project for the class is to make an impact on the community by the means of activist initiatives.

“Often students find it really easy to criticize activism without knowing how much work goes into that or how to do activism — this is an opportunity to try and be an activist for 8-10 hours and challenge yourself,” she said.

“Its an opportunity to live activism. Theory is only as useful as its puts into practice.” 

Hron also said that the purpose of activism isn’t meant solely for raising awareness about a particular issue, but to make a profound impact on one’s community.

Connor Young, a fourth-year student and a representative of Laurier Student Voices, has encouraged Laurier students to get involved with activist initiatives.

“A lot of times we don’t have the opportunity to enter into diplomatic conversation until some sort of activism has taken place that makes those individuals who are able to make decisions realize that there is a serious issue,” Young said.

“I think diplomacy is ultimately the end goal of activism, but activism provides an avenue in order to reach that diplomatic conversation.”

LSV has been actively involved in advocating against the passing of Integrated Planning and Resource Management and petitioning against the recent cut of 22 positions at Laurier. To help spread awareness, LSV utilized social media outlets such as Twitter Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.

Young said Twitter was a way to reach out to politicians and decision makers, while Facebook was meant to reach out to students, as it is a popular format for students to network on. Additionally Tumblr was used to share documents such as their code of conduct, while Instagram documented visuals of everything that happened, with a few of their images being displayed on various news stations.

“I don’t think we would have been as effective as we were without social media,” Young said.

Activism or slacktivism?

While online activism has proven to initiate awareness, it also perpetuates the growing concern of “slacktivism.”

Slacktivism is best defined as actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause, such as signing an online petition, but regarded as requiring little time or involvement. This term perpetuates the notion that all problems can be seamlessly fixed using social media, however this is not the case.

“Social media is a great tool; we have a great tool at our disposal that previous generations did not have. It’s a great tool for education and it’s a good way of rallying people together and raising awareness,” Hron said.

“However, I just don’t think that clicking ‘like’ or signing a petition is going to make that much change because I don’t think people realize what the end goals of that are.”

LSV has witnessed slacktivism firsthand. After Laurier made the recent job cuts, LSV had approximately 250 students ‘like’ their page on Facebook and many people showing interest in the matter. According to Young, when it came to arranging meetings to sit down and discuss the specific plans they had coming up, the number of people actually involved did not reflect that of the Facebook group.

“I think a lot of people just enjoy the single click [on Facebook],” he said. “They enjoy the idea of just clicking ‘like’ and then feeling like they’ve done their part.”

Online petitions require prior research, as people are not always aware that signing a petition does not guarantee that it is legally binding. Petitions found online can also be outdated, having been made months or years before having people stumble upon them and share them on social media.

One of the most notorious examples of slacktivism was the Kony 2012 campaign. The short film’s intended purpose was to make African militia leader and fugitive Joseph Kony internationally known in order to have him arrested by the end of 2012. The film went viral and was a worldwide phenomenon, with people sharing the video on Facebook and Twitter. While people thought they were helping to support a cause, they didn’t realize that they were supporting something else.

“[The campaign] was basically raising money for this organization that wasn’t even going to stop Joseph Kony; it was going to make another film about Joseph Kony,” Hron said.

“That money could have been well spent to help African law enforcement try to find Joseph Kony but instead it went into the pockets of the filmmakers.”

Hron also used the example of last summer’s ALS ice bucket challenge to demonstrate people took part in it because it was a popular trend, not because people were hoping to advocate for the cause.

“What looks cool on Facebook may not be helping anyone,” she added.

Finding a voice beyond the screen

Trying to encourage people to participate in activism beyond the computer is much easier said than done.

“When we were protesting IPRM, we had 150 students say that they would attend on the Facebook event, but in reality we only had about 50 and most of them were friends or friends of friends of the people in the group,” Young said.

“Social media certainly has its strong points, but there’s a big downside in the sense that it’s easy for people to jump on board, but later it’s like they don’t actually make the problem their own. A lot of people just don’t have that drive to do it.”

While it is clear likes will not eliminate the global issues, it helps to open doors of opportunity to further these changes. In reference to the Kony 2012 campaign, Bell said organizations and other causes need to provide other means of action beyond liking or sharing videos on Facebook. However, it helps to indicate an interest.

“Part of the problem was that the [Kony 2012] organization behind the video had no other avenues for supporters to take beyond liking and sharing the video. However, liking or favouriting a piece of content can be a strong indicator that an individual wants to do more,” Bell said.

“It is important to build on that initial interest and ask them to do more.  It is also important to plan out what else you want your supporters to do and that those actions are aligned with the organizations goals and objectives.”

Bell also added he progressive use of the Internet has helped to eliminate barriers in the distribution of content, meaning that one person can use compelling content and a strong message to mobilize others to take action around the world.

“Anyone who wants to make a difference no longer has an excuse. There are no gatekeepers. Use that to your advantage and put something out into the world,” Bell said.

While acknowledging that social media outlets are a great start to get involved with activism, Hron said active involvement will generate the best results.

“To gain more information you may have to read books, read a few articles or even get to know people. If you want to know about homelessness, go and visit an organization that works with homeless people and get to know issues that are in your own local community that need your support or how you can help,” she said.

“Its not useful to help people who don’t know what their needs are.”

Young, for his part, hopes that when people sign online petitions or join a Facebook group, they will be more present beyond their computer screens.

“I really hope that when people find a cause that they really care about that they are willing to step up,” he said. “Our voices are what makes a difference, not just an online presence.”

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