Online Activism for Social Change

Barbara Mikkelson “the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair.”

While we are currently running real world campaigns to spread the vegan message, but also see the importance of being online. This piece is taking a look at the opinions regarding online activism, and does it help or hold back activism.

Online activism, Facebook activism, fakebook activism, faketivism, slacktivism, passivism, copy&paste activism, social media activism. People are still trying to settle on a name for it, however, regardless of the name, it is all variations on the same thing – Using online social networks and websites as a form of activism and organisation.

Does this work?

For some, this activism, involves nothing more active than “clicking” share or ‘like’ on social networks. If might make people feel good, and generate a lot of sharing, although whether this translates into making a difference is yet to be seen.

One of the earliest descriptors of this concept is from early 2001

e-mail a petition [with] the words, “Forward this to everyone you know.” …They call it “slacker activism,” or “slacktivism” (the term preferred by slacker typists). It’s not that these e-mails don’t intend to do good, the experts say. It’s that they go about it in a way that can too easily become utterly meaningless.
—Month Phan, “On the Net, “slacktivism’,” Newsday, February 27, 2001

People end up signing so many petitions or signing up to websites or joining facebook groups that important causes get lost in the clutter.

When it comes to animal abuse, or environmental disaster, you might feel good, or less guilty, by clicking and sharing, although do you achieve anything.

Facebook is the largest social network in the world, if it was a country, it would be the worlds fourth largest in terms of population, is one of the main tools activists can use. This can in some instances be toxic for activism. When people care more about collecting friends and joining groups than activism. Facebook has a limit of 5000 friends, with groups included in that count. Some people meet that target, then set up Twin accounts and set out to collect another 5000.

Can anyone really have 5000 friends? Are these friends, really? or just groupies or strangers you allow into your life. Or does these ease with which people can do the point-and-click thing hide people’s true commitment to a cause or issue. Joining a facebook group is not activism. It is simply joining a facebook group, you must do something when you are there – interact, share ideas, meet others, learn about campaigns, encourage others to take action.

This is demonstrated when you hold an event, a real world event in one part of the world, and you see people who live on the opposite side of the world clicking attend, and you know they cannot possibly be attending. What does it benefit event organisers to see hundreds of people say they will attend, but when it comes to walking out the front door, attendees are in single figures. These false numbers artificially inflate the numbers of people interested in a cause. This actually can do activism a disservice.

Rather than focusing on people who want to make a difference and can make a difference, activists are chasing numbers; members in the groups, numbers of clicks on a link, number of retweets, with no real way to measure how this translates into deep interest and commitment or people who are just clicking on and clicking through.

In an age when everything can be counted, from site visits and followers, do we end up chasing these numbers rather instead of fighting for our causes.

When we sign online petitions, what does it show of our commitment level when it only takes a couple of seconds to sign and share. Would that really influence decision makers to change their minds?

However, Online activism is Only about numbers. Effective campaigns are designed to match this criteria, designed to harness the power of number, sheer overwhelming the target of activism with people power and volume.

Campaigns that don’t engage with the public fail to get shared. With so many new camaigns and issues every day, only the successful survive. This is the benefit of having a good network in place. And networking with activists worldwide (or at least those parts of the world online) is one of the benefits of organising online rather than the real world. Or parallel with the real world.

If someone can’t make an impact online, when they are asking so little from activists, then how will they make an impact in the real world. It can be good indicator of how well the ideas are translating to the wider community, and if more work is required.

If all someone can do is sign a couple of online petitions or email their local parliamentary person, then giving that person a space is a good outcome. Thousands of people around the world, all doing small things will add up. Particularly (and this is a reason, I have yet to see mentioned in articles of the benefits of online activism), if the activists are busy people with crowded lives who are active online, quite often so are the targets!

When people arrange their lives online – get their news online, shop online, catch up with friends online, online can have an influence. If someone reads an email about reasons to boycott a company for abusive practices then clicks for their daily dose of retail therapy, they may be influenced by the email they have just read when it comes down to buying product A or product B.

Other benefits include the “text ACTIVISM to 54321” emails and tweets which go around the world, passed on from user to user, following disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Linked to long established charities with good reputations, people know their money can go directly to those working to make a difference. Responses are immediate, and people receiving aid, probably don’t care if someone phoned it in or went to the bank and got cash and donated that way.

As Use your Cellphone to Help Pakistan Flood Relief shows, you can still be an activist, from your office cubicle, or bedroom, or train. Or Stephen Colbert’s “Retweet Colbert for the Gulf!” (middle of page), Comedy Central the network that hosts Colbert’s show, would donate $1 per retweet of a specific tweet (up to a certain amount).

The online game, Free Rice, allows users to click on multiple choice answers to word definitions, identify famous art, chemistry symbols, identify countries on a map or capitals, maths or learn a language quiz. Sponsors will donate rice for correct answers. And users can improve their vocabulary, maths, chemistry or other skills.

Any real world changes this style of online activism has, is due to the organisers making it easier for people to click-for-a-difference. They design the websites, find the sponsors, do the research, write the well worded petitions. They do the work so that it is easy for others to participate.

As online political groups such as GetUp! and MoveOn show, online campaigns can be used to get people interested in a cause, to act as a gateway into finding out more about the issue, and moving to real world activism.

However, in all of this, one thing online activists should not forget, online social networks are a tool. They are not the battle, if your goal is to get a staggeringly large number of followers or friends, how does that translate into activism. It is just one tool of many, another weapon in the arsenal of fighting for social change.

Online activism can promote, disseminate, propagate, simulate, imitate or distract, but not always replace real world activism.

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” ~ Muhammad Ali

Feedback welcome.

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