Slacktivism or Revolution: Is Social Media Doing the World Any Good? ~ Katie Wilkins

Photo: tedeytan

Besides keeping us up to date on the Prime Minister’s shaving debacles (Australians, you get me), your mate’s cat’s latest shenanigans, and whether or not pubic hair is in or out, new media has also impacted the dynamics of human rights activism.

But is it helping? Or is it creating a breed of “slacktivists” who click “like” buttons all day and somehow feel that they can give up on the idea of volunteering, skip their daily meditation, say no to donating to charities, and live guilt free, believing they are helping to make the world a better place?

Don’t get me wrong: new media has its pluses.

It has created an extensive, liberated and mobile public sphere that transcends social, geographical, and political barriers. It increases the speed and quantity of information sharing, and it means that we can watch hilarious dog clips on Youtube for hours, or stay up all night watching 11 episodes of Breaking Bad in a row.

Plus, it makes us laugh and learn and listen.

In some ways, it seems as though the Internet was born to give everyone an opportunity to be heard. It’s dangerous and free and honest and raw. What’s more, it cannot be silenced. We can write whatever we want, whether it is about yoga or same-sex marriage or sport or our pets.

It’s the uncensored, international news agency we’ve never had, and it threatens our leaders by strengthening our voices. Chinese President Hu Jintao compared the Internet to a nuclear weapon: it promotes strength and danger at the same time.

But is the impact of new media exaggerated, or are we currently witnessing a revolution?

You wouldn’t know it judging by the amount of sexy “selfies” and pictures of people’s lunches that pop up in your news feed, but there are actually some important movements happening online.

The Egyptian uprisings of 2011 are commonly known as the “Facebook revolution,” the Moldavian revolt of 2009 has been dubbed the “Twitter revolution”, and we are all love children of the “digital era.” But do blogs, Twitter, Facebook groups and podcasts fracture the public attention so that their messages are also fractured and therefore less meaningful?

Citizen journalists, tweeters, and Facebook users across the globe certainly serve us by erasing divisions based on gender, religion, race, and nationality, but the unfortunate truth is that so-called “slacktivists” rarely take any real further action when they go offline.

The Save Darfur Coalition on Facebook had 1,282,339 members, but on average they only donated nine cents each.

There were five million Egyptian Facebook users and 32,000 Facebook groups with a political focus prior to the April 6 revolution, but these online activities did not correlate with offline activism. “Facebook “likers,” writer Malcolm Gladwell, says, “are not sitters-in or nonviolent activists, they are not even marchers or candle-wavers; they may wish to associate themselves with a protest app, but the nature of their medium means they do so with negligible risk and therefore negligible effect.”

Is this the difference between participation and engagement, where publicly contributing is being confused with actually making a difference? As far as I can tell, what’s happening is that although participation rates are soaring, the level of commitment has diminished.

But it doesn’t mean we’re not making some serious headway by getting online and challenging the power of censorship. Sure, governments can try to shut down the Internet for a short time; delete “harmful” information; close down news offices; or hack Facebook pages.

But no matter how hard they try to defy the power of the web, suppression of information cannot and will not prevail.

As Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei stated: “…in the long run… leaders must understand it’s not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off—and they can’t live with the consequences of that. The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win.”

What can be sure is that the Internet is disrupting the balance of power for the good of all. Although the technology-adoring West may be unreasonably worshipping the phenomenon of new media, we can see the short-term effects, and can envision the long-term benefits.

New media is not a means to an end, nor is technology the answer to all the world’s problems, but it can be used collectively with conventional forms of physical activism reinforced by a strong civil society.

We can make change online, but let’s work harder offline. Let’s stop clicking “like” and pondering for a moment the well-being of refugees, the disabled, or the politically oppressed, only to get distracted by Angry Bird or your wish list on Etsy.

Let’s make ourselves heard online and then fortify our words by proving that old-school physical activism isn’t dead.

Like enlightened society on Facebook.

Assistant Ed: Renee Picard / Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Sep 15, 2013 8:35am

Like anything in life, when you overdo it it harms you. So it goes with social media – if you use it wisely, it's beneficial for you and others. If you overdo it, you waste your time and those of others reading your updates. That's my opinion.

Eric Graham Sep 10, 2013 9:34am

This is definitely a new age of communication–has been for some time, now–but there is still much protesting done in person which can be extremely effective at getting ideas across to the government if the people feel that their inherent American right are being violated (or whatever the case may be). Social Media is truly effective because of the high volume of the masses that can be reached over short periods of time. Great article!

Katie Sep 9, 2013 8:04pm

You make some really great points. I absolutely agree with you that social media has and will have a huge effect on human rights issues globally. Many people are writing, reading and engaging in debates, protests or petitions that have truly made a difference. I like your point that all revolutions begin with a thought put into words. The internet certainly makes it easier for these thoughts to be heard.

The point that I wanted to consider was that many people believe the internet/social media is the new and revolutionary means to create change. Although the internet can initiate and facilitate change, I wanted to point out that massive changes happened before the internet existed and it's important to realise that "liking" a page cannot be equated with physical activism. Being involved in online activism can be an additional strategy to fortify human rights campaigns, but to think that it is the strongest, most important method would be to undervalue the people who physically stand up and overestimate the low-level commitment that is required to share, or like, or comment on an online post.

I do have to disagree that the computer is not a breakthrough invention! Computers have changed the way that people work, communicate and think, and have created otherwise impossible international connections. In my eyes, the internet has completely changed the nature of the public sphere. But you are right: it more or less increases the quantity and speed of information sharing.

This article stemmed from a 4000 essay I wrote for University where I aimed to debate the pros and cons of social media in human rights activism. I researched conflicting arguments by Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell and personally came to the conclusion that I do not wholly sit with either of them on the subject. I completely agree with your view that we are the next step after the idea and also believe that your reasoning for believing in the power of the internet is well founded.

Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your thoughts!

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Katie Wilkins

Katie Wilkins is a mother of a dog and two chickens, permaculture enthusiast, recently certified yoga teacher and journalism graduate. When she isn’t working behind a bar or making coffee, she likes to play in the garden, make bucket loads of preserves, buy too many vintage knick-knacks and enjoy the wonderfulness of Melbourne city.