What makes an online activist?

Internet, and especially the social media, is without doubt an influential and common part of our daily lives. We use the Internet to communicate on various platforms, to get information and to read the news, while social media has also become for many an important space of self-expression, sharing opinion and personal experiences. As, therefore, social media is an ideal potential platform to reach out to wide and diverse audiences fast and cheap, it serves as a useful space for activism – and so the concept of digital or online activism has emerged.

According to Mary Joyce online activism is “the way that citizens use digital technology to make social and political change”, but of course it can involve a wide variety of activities and initiatives from online awareness raising to organizing offline events, such as protests.

The differences among producers, participants, users and consumers of media have been fading away, and the social media and other online platforms have provided a great opportunity for all Internet users to create and share content, communicate and interact and thus to get information across to other people. Social media platforms have given an easy way to “lazy activism”: it takes a few clicks to like and share content to “raise awareness” and 30 seconds to change our profile picture to “show solidarity”.

However, is this online activism? What matters more: the effort, the result or is it something else?  Is there a way to define a “true activist”?

#Prayfor…

According to the social network more than 70 million people expressed their support on Instagram in the first 24 hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015by posting hashtags and emojis. It was followed by #PrayforEgypt, #PrayforKabul and #PrayforOrlando – just to mention a few. Profile pictures were edited by filters and frames of the French flag, the Palestinian flag, the rainbow flag and #Withrefugees.

For most of us it is probably clear that these actions are perfect examples of slacktivism – “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.”

After the Kony2012 video was launched it went viral on social media reaching more than 100 million views in a week.

Slacktivism (or clicktivism as Scott refers to it in his book) is an increasingly popular way to engage with different social and political issues, but most of the time once such a campaign booms in popularity it dies out just as quickly as it appeared. However, is it good for anything other than making ourselves feel good? Well, this question might not be an easy one to answer and opinions are controversial.

Some argue that this shouldn’t be condemned – after all, what else can one do from the other part of the world than express his/her solidarity? Milan also argues that “social media posts […] are not just slogans. They signal solidarity, and reclaim a sense of belonging and commonality. In other words, they communicate and create identity”.

Others are more critical, and even cynical, about slacktivism, describing it as meaningless and pointing out that “true activism must be proactive and sustained”.

Commitment, effort or impact?

But is it really the commitment and the amount of effort that matters most? What about the initiatives that involve the long-term commitment of people who are passionate about a certain cause and work actively to raise awareness, mobilize and organize protests, but do not succeed to achieve the slightest change?

Take the ‘Tanítanék’ (translates to ‘I would like/want to teach’) movement in Hungary that was launched in 2016 by a group of teachers demanding educational reform in the increasingly centralized system. The movement is also known as the ‘checked shirt revolution’ as checked shirts became the symbol of the movement after the former education sectary referred to the discontented teachers as “disheveled and unshaven types in checked shirts”.

Teachers and students wearing checked shirts to show solidarity with the “Tanítanék” movement (Source: 24.hu)

The movement has a significant online presence that has been used to raise awareness about the current problems in the Hungarian educational system, mobilize people and organize protests – some of them with a turnout of over 25 thousand people. On social media the #kockásing hashtag (#checkshirt) went viral with people posting photos wearing checked shirts to show their support and solidarity.

Still, despite of the efforts not too much has been achieved in the past 2 years and the government keeps insisting to the centrally defined subjects, curriculum and even textbooks.

On the other hand, some campaigns where participation is real close to be seen as slacktivism might actually sometimes have significant impacts. If we take the famous Ice Bucket Challenge as an example, for most of the 17 million people who posted a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over their heads the challenge has likely been more for fun than as an actual commitment to the cause, and probably not too many of them have been engaged with the issue beyond shooting the video and ideally donating some money.

However, as a result of the campaign more than 100m USD was donated in the first 2 months for the cause and research that was thus made possible – among other discoveries – ultimately led to the identification of a gene that contributes to ALS in 2016.

Online activism vs slacktivism

I am not arguing that all online campaigns make an impact (after all, Kony is still out there…) nor that initiatives, which require a few clicks and perhaps a small donation should be considered as activism. Nevertheless, as activists do not simply integrate the Internet as an important tool into their work, but different online platforms foster the emergence of new ways of engagement with various issues, there might be a need to change the way we think about activism.

What do you think? How would you define an activist and where lies the fine line between online activism and slacktivism? Is it effort or impact that matters more?

 

References:

Lievrouw, Leah (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media Oxford: Polity Press.

McCaughey, Martha & Ayers, Michael D. (2003) Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice New York: Routledge, 2003.

Milan, Stefania Mobilizing in Times of Social Media in Dencik, L., Leistert, O. (eds.) 2015: Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Scott, Martin (2014) Media and development London: Zed Books