This article was originally published in Lot’s Wife Edition 6: Parody
Since the birth of the internet we’ve had terms to describe online activism, using the internet to take action for or against various issues. The nineties propagated the sardonic ‘Slacktivism’ with ‘mouseclick activism’ taking over in the early 2000s before the rise of ‘hashtag activism’ at the start of this decade. No matter the label, the frequency of today’s online protests demonstrate that we no longer scorn the thought of using social media to spread awareness. We’ve recognised that giving virtual attention to a particular issue births the potential for real world change.
However, the two things social media communities have not had a good track record with, are keeping widely circulated information intact. Whether this is due to Twitter’s twenty-five character limit or our tendency to repost and summarise from different mediums, we’ve repeatedly shown our ability to play Chinese whispers. (nice reference to the game)
This combination of momentary sensationalism and distortion has historically not leant itself well to furthering long term awareness. Notable examples of hashtag activism that peaked and then fell silent include #Kony2012, #JusticeforTrayvon and #bringbackourgirls. Each hashtag referred to issues that deserved and received media attention on a mass scale through trending across social media outlets. However what happened once the hype subsided?
Not many people online, and fewer people offline seem to know what exactly happened to the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Fewer still pushed for reform of legislation concerning #JusticeforTrayvon after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in July 2013. Likewise the twitterati who so passionately advocated that Boko Haram militants return the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls stayed quiet when two weeks later the Boko Haram slaughtered more than thirty people in two villages within six miles of the Chibok kidnappings.
Today the worry with hashtag activism is the surrounding mass perception that awareness automatically equals impact. When an issue stops trending, ceases to appear on our newsfeeds, it’s often taken for granted that the issue has been resolved. In some cases this has been true, the hashtag #standwithPP happily ceased to be after the successful campaign against proposed funding cuts for PlannedParenthood in America. For the rest though, a decline in popularity stems from arbitrary shifts in our attention, not resolution of conflict or crises.
Despite the problems of advocating on social media, online activism has become the new norm for a number of major non-profit organisations. Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace in particular list more online – everything from signing petitions to becoming a vlogger – than offline opportunities. Smaller domestic organisations are starting to follow this trend with BecauseIAmAGirl and Beyondblue both encouraging online viewers to join in ‘taking action’ by sharing to social media or forwarding emails. Online, it would seem that our most powerful tool for advocacy is our name and email address.
When it comes to hashtag activism or online advocacy, generally the user is more important than the medium. While the mass support generated by increased awareness can work as a powerful force, it can easily fall flat. We may very well offset the benefit of worldwide scrutiny through neglecting to follow it up with action, of the 18, 000 people who clicked ‘going’ on Facebook for Sydney’s Kony2012 rally only twenty five actually attended.
It may be better to know a lot about a little than a little about a lot. This piece of advice is often ignored. In the context of online activism this idea could be the difference between disengaged or ignorant ranting and meaningful campaigning which can shape a new outcomes. It may at first feel a little backward, but by breaking down the habit of advocating for everything and anything we find worthwhile, our presence and influence on social media can be used as a tool to target particular issues that one feels strongly about.
Instead of promoting a hundred different campaigns, choosing a well-researched small number is a better approach. Your genuine interest and passion is bound to be infectious and will take you a step further towards real change.