Hashtag This: Activism’s Online Downfall

by / 0 Comments / 113 View / September 24, 2015

Like to show your support. Retweet to make a difference. Share to save the world. Social media is calling us to action.

The online advocacy world is redefining society’s view of social and political activism. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected via friend requests and followers, a simple click can unite the masses for social change. But little effort and little risk ultimately leads to little reward, advocacy’s current web-based trajectory now merely ‘social slacktivism’.

I can’t deny social media’s incredible ability to raise awareness, empower and communicate social change. The ease with which internet-users can instantly connect with an issue is on the rise, only to be matched by the increasing ease in disengaging with it – and herein lies the problem. For the majority, involvement ceases with a like, tweet or share of the countless photos, videos and real stories that tug at the heartstrings. The online feed has brought about waves of outrage and charity as humanity is confronted by plights from all corners of the earth. But where is the tangible effect?

The act of supporting a cause on social media has become a token, rarely followed up by real contribution that can make real change. It scares me how many people equate a ‘like’ or ‘share’ to charity, when in reality it is only a half-hearted gesture. No surprise that a study published in the Journal of Sociological Science found that most who ‘like’ an organisation’s Facebook page for a cause do not follow up with a donation. With a simple like comes zero compulsion to ask difficult and confronting questions for long-term change, nor does it create a binding monetary commitment to the cause. Crisis via online publicity elicits emotion in the moment, a fleeting want to make a difference that is rarely a lifelong connection. There is no material contribution, no questioning of entrenched norms, no consideration of the role one plays in perpetuating troublesome situations.

The same study showed that return rates for online campaigns can be as low as a tenth of those from offline, traditional routes such as mail solicitation. Our so-called “activism” stops short of anything that requires leaving the comfort of our computer screens or altering any aspect of our life.

Worst still, the motivation for partaking in social media advocacy is not always morally sound. As society becomes more concerned with online persona, for many the main motive becomes visibility of activism as opposed to personal interest. Campaigning for change is now a fashionable trend aimed at looking good to others.

Psychologically speaking, online activism is also problematic in terms of moral licensing. By demonstrating their altruism on social media, people are more likely to compensate on ethics in other areas as they feel they have done their bit. Thus, real involvement and offerings are compromised for passive online activism.

Social media is making awareness easier to achieve, but harder for this same awareness to have real impact.

The nature of viral campaigns also results in intricate situations being simplified into a few images or a single narrative, brief yet unsolved stints in today’s rapid news cycle. We’ve seen the rise and fall of Kony 2012, forgotten the #bringbackourgirls movement and dried off since the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. The cynic in me counts down the days till the horror at drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi subsides despite the Syrian conflict raging on. Too often people take what they see on social media at face value, and fail to realise the complexities of issues. What starts as a singular message is frequently distorted by ill-informed, self-appointed activists to the point that those in need no longer have a voice.

Social media can be a great tool for creating networks and raising awareness for social issues. It has united people on a global scale and pushed issues to the forefront of discussion. But online advocacy alone will not bring about systematic social change.

We cannot be content with a static share or a passive like. We cannot let real change and commitment be sacrificed for merely online support. We cannot let enduring crisis and conflict be reduced to one-off slacktivism stints in the Facebook feed.

Social media is calling us to action – so come on, get up! Close the laptop screen, put away the phone and start being the change you keep hashtagging.