Double Tap to Save the World: Is Social Media Revolutionising or Killing Activism?

By Aada Orava, GLOBUS Correspondent

It is hardly a controversial statement to say that social media is an increasingly important device for the spread of information and political mobilization. Citizens and politicians alike are using online platforms to engage with important issues and each other. For example,  a reported 53% of Americans engaged with a political or social issue online within a year, with around two thirds believing that social media is important for drawing elected officials’ attention to issues and for creating movements for social change. 

Sometimes, however, political engagement online can cause a tumultuous mass reaction. One example of this, in 2019, was the explosive viral online reaction to the increased fires and deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest in light of Jair Bolsonaro’s recent appointment as president. Social media was much faster to draw global attention to the emergency than traditional media. Not only that, social media became a channel for citizens to take more concrete action both locally and globally. For example, following the outrage, Brazilians took to the streets in explicit protest against the president, and the NGO Rainforest Alliance, for example, raised more than $500,000 through Instagram.  

There are many other examples of social media creating or fostering important, even revolutionary change. Only a couple of years ago, the #MeToo movement started online, exposing the culture of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, and demonstrating that no one is untouchable in the face of a mass mobilization of the wronged. Another famously cited example is the Arab Spring, where Social Media was a critical tool for building networks and spreading information that drove people to the streets. 

However, there is also a flipside to the activism happening online: oftentimes it seems to be very much a form of more passive resistance with a beta mentality. People will gladly share and like, but will much more rarely take charge and responsibility in demanding change. In other words, for an issue to gain enough meaningful attention, it really requires a true mass phenomenon. Some writers have called this “slacktivism”, defined as a “low-risk, low-cost activity via social media whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity”. The concept is quick to point out that, while raising awareness is essential, it is rarely effective in producing major change. 

The other issue with ”slacktivism” is the lack of commitment to the cause. When the only work, emotion, and effort that we put in to save the Amazon is a post on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, we ourselves, being those campaigning for change, tend to forget about the issues that we were passionate about quite easily. How many of us really know what is happening in Sudan now that there are no blue profile pictures around? And how is ALS research doing now that everyone is long done with emptying buckets of water on their heads? There is no doubt that both movements drew critical attention to important issues, but it was short-lived and ultimately not that memorable.  

However, the world certainly is a complex place with many a problem, and it is perhaps not even plausible for any individual, group, or network to be concerned about all of them simultaneously and continuously. So surely it is still a change for the good to give important social, political and environmental issues the spotlight of social media attention for a moment, even if it cannot be infinite? And surely a more beta form of political participation and protest, or “slacktivism”, is better than none at all? 

The enemy does not lie in the new forms of political action and mobilization that social media has enabled. No, there is certainly nothing wrong with organization and communication online! Rather, the risk is that we let these new, arguably more passive, forms of protest stifle and side-line more concrete and immediate acts of resistance. In other words, we need to remember that in 2019 the Amazon has been experiencing the highest level of deforestation in a decade, and that the failure of the Bolsonaro government to protect the rainforest has certainly not been solved even if the outrage has quieted down – and all regardless of whether you liked that Instagram post that promised to plant a tree or not.  

Header image: Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash 

References

Anderson, M., Toor, S., Rainie, L. and Smith, A. (2018). Activism in the Social Media Age. Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/07/11/public-attitudes-toward-political-engagement-on-social-media/ 

Mitelman, G. (2014). Can SlacktivisLead to Activism? HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/can-slacktivism-lead-to-a_b_5946986?_guc_consent_skip=1577051841 

Nawrat, A. (2019). Have you heard the Amazon is on fire? The power of social media in awareness raising. Verdict. Available at: https://www.verdict.co.uk/amazon-fires-social-media/ 

O’Donnell, C. (2011). New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring. UW News. Available at: https://www.washington.edu/news/2011/09/12/new-study-quantifies-use-of-social-media-in-arab-spring/ 

One comment

  1. Thanks for this Aada, and I think this is an important point, “Rather, the risk is that we let these new, arguably more passive, forms of protest stifle and side-line more concrete and immediate acts of resistance”. The book Tweets and the Streets by Paolo Gerbaudo sees social media a very real part of activism.

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