Another dose of alarmism is now in vogue: decrying posts, hashtags, and other Internet activist campaigns. Labeling such forms of participation as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” and claiming that they are not only ineffective but detrimental to their causes ignores the Internet’s potential as a tool for social and political change. Skillfully executed Internet campaigns, spread by likes, shares, and hashtags, are the Paul Reveres of today, sparking action as well as discussion and debate.
Take a look at last summer’s #supportgaza hashtag or the Ice Bucket Challenge. Both were online forms of activism that were criticized for shallowness, and, after a year, we can step back and look at both objectively. Whether you agree or disagree with either cause is irrelevant: the issue here is each campaign’s effectiveness. While the Ice Bucket Challenge may have promoted self-satisfaction and donating simply to attract attention, the fact is that the Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $100 million for the ALS Association. And while posting “I’m an American and I #supportgaza” may seem shallow, scroll down to the comments. Sure, some of them are “I support too” or “You hate Israel,” but many of them are paragraphs of detailed arguments, which others then respond to with their own nuanced rebuttals. From this perspective, the #supportgaza campaign succeeded, arousing not only awareness but legitimate debate.
The topics which garner politicians’ effort and action are, to some extent, a function of what people discuss on Main Street. Examine, for instance, the question that has become a mainstay of political polling: “Which issue matters most to you? A. Economy B. Education C. Foreign Policy” and so on. The poll’s results help shape the candidates’ rhetoric during the campaign, for which issues the campaign operatives will develop proposals, and which issues the elected candidate will focus on in order to be re-elected. Online posts, hashtags, and videos provide concrete evidence about which issues matter to people and which positions they take—giving ordinary people an opportunity to create dialogue on the national, even international, level.
Criticizing Internet activism or efforts to simply “stay informed” is not the solution to low youth voter turnout and low levels of volunteerism. The solution is to participate in such activism, refine it and add more depth, and then take action outside the online realm. Raising awareness and taking action are both worthy goals in themselves, but together they are more powerful. Volunteering at a soup kitchen helps provide food for today, and publicizing ways to donate to a food bank helps provide food for tomorrow. The danger that lurks beneath online activism is the same as that beneath many forms of volunteerism: congratulatory self-satisfaction. In both cases, an instance of activism should not make us pleased with ourselves, but rather foster a desire to do more, to do it more effectively, to be more genuine.
A year of the college application process, in which we realize that tens of thousands of Internet-savvy applicants have nearly perfect grades and SAT scores and have founded a service or political organization, has contributed to my optimism about the future of activism. If each year of college applicants has accomplished this much, America has significant raw talent and dedication that can improve the society of the future. For all its faults, the American college application process provides an important, and sometimes needed, perspective for high school seniors: what you have accomplished is not enough, and you can always do better. Such attitude is crucial to making a lasting contribution to any cause.
If we denounce Internet activism as ineffective, then we surrender the Internet to be a realm of social exchanges, advertising, and games, ignoring its vast potential as an architect of change. To be sure, crafting an effective Internet campaign is both a science and an art, and many campaigns, just like their letter-writing counterparts, will fail. The facts have spoken: some Internet activism works remarkably. Now, the question should be how to most successfully create such activist campaigns. Instead of descending to the alarmism which seldom creates constructive change, we must channel both optimism and an unrelenting desire to improve to make activism more effective for the future.