Social Media Activism – The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

February 8, 2015 § Leave a comment


Activism has its roots in truly honourable movements – paradigm shifting movements – such as African-American Civil Rights Movement, The Russian Revolution of 1917, and First Wave Feminism (and, to varying degrees, the successive second/third waves).

These revolutions all had two elements in common: an unhealthy power dynamic (racism, authoritarianism, or sexism respectively) and the resultant social, political and physical backlash of the masses. Their successes were in the long-term commitment of campaigners towards a clear, defined goal: civil rights and feminist movements demanded equality, and made significant steps towards these over years of brutal, often violent campaigning.

Social media has, apparently, revolutionized activism, with many waxing lyrical of its importance in ‘raising awareness’ and co-coordinating campaigners. The Arab Spring of 2011 was testament to this; thousands were mobilized in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle-east, with social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook serving an important role. The Kony Campaign and Occupy Wall Street movement are other examples of significant social media-driven movements.

The recurrent theme to these campaigns, unfortunately, is their inherent lack of success. The Arab Spring has left the whole region in an ongoing state of inconclusive political upheaval, the Occupy Wall Street movement – besides worldwide exposure – failed in their goals of political and economic equality, and Kony 2012…well, let’s just say the Facebook-driven campaign to arrest African cult and militia leader Joseph Kony epitomizes the limitations of social media activism in its current state.

Slacktivism, Clicktivism, and Hashtag Activism

Serious, complex world events tend to find their way to the social media sphere one way or another, be it as a Twitter hashtag or a Facebook campaign page. We ‘click’ our support, and we might even – if we’re feeling particularly philanthropic – share tweets or write a supportive message. How much of this kind of engagement is really helping the cause, however? Researchers analysed the Save Darfur Cause, one of the most significant causes on Facebook.

They found that, of the 1,174,612 members, the majority did not contribute monetarily (99.76%) or recruit new members (72%)[1]. Contributions were mostly from 1%, a demographic researchers call ‘hyperactivists’ – activists who were usually already engaged in the cause prior to the online campaign. In fact, their study revealed that there was an inverse relationship between broad online engagement and deep participation.

As people engage with these causes via online platforms, their likelihood of actual meaningful involvement was reduced. The study reasons that social media activism is often tied to image and vanity. Similar, perhaps, to the bystander effect, social media ‘activists’ expect the millions of others involved to help or contribute, leading to an echo chamber where ideas are repeated, but very little is acted upon.

Another study[2] expresses the concern that, like the wearing of pink paraphernalia to support a cure for breast cancer, “the inability of small (online) public displays of token support to motivate subsequent helping behavior is a prevalent issue facing our society given that many charities and social causes have come to rely heavily on such tactics”.

People ease their conscience with a click (an act from which the term ‘Clicktivism’ pessimistically stems from). The problem is, social media activism in this form can actually inhibit meaningful engagement with the issues at hand. Social media campaigns can detract from important issues, as those involved feel contented in superficial involvement (likes or shares), potentially limiting their commitment to real action. Awareness, while necessary, will not guarantee meaningful action. People hop on the proverbial ‘bandwagon issue’ that is trendy to support at the time, and rarely stick around. It is widely accepted that deep, committed, long-term involvement, preferably at the local level, is necessary for movements and campaigns to be of success.

Western Solutions to (Complex) Foreign Problems

There’s a certain naive arrogance to the tone of many online campaigns and their respective campaigners. Catchy slogans, phrases and hashtags – Stop Kony! #Bringbackourgirls – simplify vastly complex, on-going issues, events and conflicts to the most digestible format. Tweeters or Facebookers (typically from North America, Europe, or Oceania) call for an immediate, local solution, without any real involvement from themselves or anything more than a shallow understanding of the issue.

For example, when the Kony 2012 campaign charity Invisible Children showed viewings of their film in Lira, northern Uganda, an area ravaged by Kony’s LRA[3], locals – many of whom were directly impacted by Kony’s atrocities – were outraged. They felt that not only did the campaign fail to reflect Ugandan’s lives and struggles, it glamorized Kony through its film and its posters, t-shirts, and related media.

As Ethiopian writer Solome Lemma writes, “[The campaign] paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power. It calls upon an external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering. Well, this is a misrepresentation of the reality on the ground.”[4]

The disconnect between Western concern and reality is epitomized in the fact that Kony, prior to the launch of the campaign, had already left Uganda. Not only that, the Ugandan military – a force the campaign supported – were responsible for serious human rights violations at the time. Our limited understanding of foreign issues can lead to serious folly: Tweeters en-masse encouraged US military intervention to hunt down Kony. Such ‘hive-mind’ activity proves worrying; such an event could prove a political and diplomatic disaster. It comes as no surprise that, after raising $32 million in 2012, Invisible Children, Inc. have failed to assist in the capturing of Joseph Kony to date.

Truthfully, many problems in the world do not have a clear cut solution. When causes are popularized on social media outlets, they have often been on-going for years, for decades. The ‘low-attention span’ nature of online campaigns and social media is often not compatible with complex, long-term issues. When they are simplified for maximized online effectiveness, the complexity is lost, leading to misinformation and misunderstanding. For example, the recent Ebola crisis – despite there only being a handful of isolated US cases – sparked an online panic, with 6,000 Ebola-related tweets a minute[5] at its highest, giving readers the impression of a U.S. epidemic of the disease.

Concluding Thoughts

The Arab Spring of 2011 is an ongoing phenomenon, and the region is undergoing a period of significant metamorphosis. While social media proved useful in organising flash style-mobs, informing protesters, and exposing issues on a global scale, it is merely a useful tool amongst many in the enduring, multifaceted struggle towards real change.

Its benefits must be taken with its negatives. Namely, that it encourages low-quality involvement – or, clicktivism – that can actually detract from real, substantial support, and that it encourages the oversimplification of information. Social media can benefit real-world processes (meaningful action and commitment, mobilised communities, and the sharing of expertise) but it cannot replace them.

It is only through realising the limitations of social media that we can fully utilize it effectively. For true change to occur, we must commit ourselves to real involvement and action. Activists must look back to their roots, to the ground-breaking movements – civil rights and feminist movements – and draw upon their success for inspiration.

Social media can be used – locally – to organise, and – globally – to raise awareness. But the majority of progress will be made through the blood, sweat and tears of local efforts, efforts that will be measured in painstaking years, and not the nanosecond attention span of the internet.

Political change is a long game, one that is messy, chaotic and violent. It goes without saying that, in countries undergoing radical change – Syria, Egypt, and North Korea, and many more – the revolution will not be tweeted.







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