April 11, 2012
The rise of social media has brought about important transformations in the ways that people engage in both the public and private realms of social life. Lately, its consequences for social activism have been in the spotlight. High-profile events such as those associated with the so-called Arab Spring and the recent KONY 2012 campaign have garnered much attention among citizens and scholars questioning whether social media is helping or hurting engagement in civic and political affairs. Of course there are two sides to every story, including this one. Indeed, social media offers both promise and peril for social activism. My intent here is to point out a few of the key promises for social activism, drawing from my own research and the work of other scholars in the area of new media and public life.
A major criticism of online forms of public engagement is that they are not as “real” or meaningful as traditional offline activities. Melding the terms “slacker” and “activism,” many have characterized computer-mediated engagement as mere “slactivism.” The implication here is that clicking on a button (e.g., “liking” a breast cancer
awareness campaign on Facebook) is a lazy form of activism, making someone feel like they are an active citizen compared to, say, doing a 5K run to generate awareness and money for the cause. While this may be true, the assumption here is that online versus offline forms of social activism is a zero-sum game.
At this point, there is little evidence that social media is taking away from other forms of engagement. If anything, it seems to be raising awareness about a wider range of possibilities for getting involved. Rarely is social media used in a vacuum. Instead, it tends to serve as an added layer of communication and information exchange that complements, rather than supplants, other forms of engagement.
Another concern about today’s new media environment is that it fosters insularity by allowing individuals to filter out alternative perspectives as they directly access desired content and only connect with similar other people. Some scholars have famously characterized this media environment as “the daily me,” portraying the image of a highly personalized and fragmented society based on individual interests rather than the welfare of others. Considering the affordances of digital networked technology, these are reasonable concerns. However, it is important to look at when these concerns were initially raised and how new media have changed since. The term “daily me” was coined back in the 1980s by Nicholas Negroponte, a researcher at MIT, and popularized by Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar at the University of Chicago, around the turn of the new millennium. So it precedes social media as we know it today (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). The transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 refers to a shift from simply accessing content online toward a new networked environment that supports user-generated content and provides portals for connecting and sharing it with others. While the selective filtering of news and information characteristic of the “daily me” is still technically possible, it is not supported socially by this new environment. Those who use social media for news, information, personal connection, and even recreation are likely to have unintended encounters with other individuals and content. That is, people are going out to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and essentially “bumping into” other people and content that they would have filtered as a Web 1.0 user. So far, the evidence suggests that this is good for engagement in public affairs because it broadens one’s range of perspectives and opportunities to be active and informed.
Finally, I would like to return to the initial criticism that “slacktivism” is essentially a lazy form of citizenship. For the moment, let’s just assume that it is. That is, let’s say that someone decides to “like” a social cause on Facebook or join a virtual group because it means they can “do their part” without having to get out of their chair. Whether or not this is lazy, it is a form of expression. The individual has decided to take a stand on something by expressing support for it. They have made one small contribution (albeit a very easy one) that others can see. If millions do the same thing (and this does happen), there is momentum for the social cause or movement that may ultimately lead to a tangible impact. Just as importantly, this kind of activity may make someone feel like they did something meaningful. Even if that one action doesn’t add up to social or political change, that feeling of efficacy is important. A large body of research shows that just feeling efficacious is an important ingredient for active and engaged citizenship. Without it, people are much less likely to get involved. So who knows … these “lazy” little things people do with their finger tips may actually help them get out of their chair and run that 5K after all.
With the rise of increasingly pervasive Internet technology, Americans have more information about the issues that affect the world in which they live today than at any other point in history. Unfortunately, this rapid pace of advancement has not been paired with a similar increase in attention spans. Currently, we live in the Gilded Age of Internet activism, wherein we delude ourselves into believing that the simple process of clicking the “Like” button on Facebook or watching a YouTube video can make a meaningful difference. The truth is that such a change is inconceivable without a traditional campaign of physical activism and personal dedication.
This is not to say that the achievements of social media activism are baseless. YouTube has proven the utility of the Internet in disseminating information more times than can be conveniently stated in this article. A recent and demonstrative example is the Kony 2012 video released by the activist group Invisible Children early last March. In this video, viewers are exposed to the eponymous Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, and witness the misery he has caused by his use of child soldiers. In addition, social networking sites Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in organizing resistance efforts for both the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring and for the opposition to the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in Congress.
The problem is: Americans have become so accustomed to the ease and ubiquity of these sites that they often forget that they are corporations designed to maximize profits, subject to international restrictions and bound by market forces. For example, during the Arab Spring, besieged governments quickly learned that social networking sites had become hotbeds of the opposition, and they hastily blocked their IP addresses. While sites certainly protested this blackout, they were powerless to prevent it. In the bloody months that followed, it was not some American teenager blogging about atrocities in Libya whose efforts led to political change, but the efforts of rebels on the ground who were willing to fight and die for a more democratic government and the leaders of other nations who materially supported their cause.
History has also empirically demonstrated that sites operated for a profit are unwilling to jeopardize their position. During the height of protests against SOPA, when the non-profit Wikipedia staged a protest by preventing English language users from using their database, Facebook, whose opposition to the bill was widely known, declined to follow suit. Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo was less ambiguous, saying that closing a global business in reaction to a single issue was “foolish”. Though Google was willing to draw attention to SOPA, whose passage would have drastically impacted its revenue, it has continuously caved into pressure from the Chinese government. Despite Google’s advocacy for the freedom of the Internet, it has censored searches regarding controversial matters such as China’s annexation of Tibet and the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown in response to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
But if the sites themselves are not positioned to advance certain causes, my opponents might point out that the sites are merely a tool, enabling users to act. This brings me to perhaps the greatest weakness of online activism — it is fickle and superficial. Part of the reason why the Kony 2012 video has garnered such a wide audience is its willingness to oversimplify the problem and understate the difficulty of the solution. When watching the video, one might be tempted to believe that Kony is solely responsible for the despair and turmoil of Ugandans and that catching him will somehow magically resolve their many problems.
The truth is far more complex; Kony is a symptom of a society which has struggled for decades with economic difficulties, interethnic strife and a history of rule by oppressive dictators. Perhaps if the filmmakers had spent one fifth of the time focusing on the history of the country as they did on irrelevant, yet adorable, interviews with their own children, viewers might begin to grasp the enormity of the change that will be needed to prevent further atrocities.
Invisible Children is not fully to blame for the video’s oversimplification and its promotion of “slacktivism.” They are, after all, only catering to what their viewers want; a dumbed down version of the facts that is shocking enough to hold the attention span of the Internet culture for half an hour. Americans play the activism role for a time, shocked by the adversity people face in the world around them. However, this motivation soon gives way to boredom at the first sign of difficulty. This is why the protests in Syria, despite becoming bloodier by the day, are receiving significantly less attention than earlier protests; suffering in the Arab world has become passé. Uganda will still remain an impoverished, undeveloped nation even after Kony is finally caught, because the world will have moved on to wondering what Snooki’s baby will look like.
The unfortunate reality is that the Internet gives people the freedom and ability to view whatever material they want, but most of us would rather look at silly pictures of cats than engage in meaningful activism. If we want to achieve lasting change in the world, Internet activism may be a good first step in promoting awareness, but it will not replace the hard work needed on the ground by dedicated volunteers.