Assessing the Pros & Cons of Online Activism

online activism
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You might be asking, why should we focus on digital activism? Well, Trump conducts most of his arguments over Twitter, so we’re meeting them on their turf. Okay, that was a joke- kinda.

There are many reasons why activists on both sides of the aisle are now focusing on digital media to spread their message, but the main reason is that it breaks down the traditional barriers to activism; privilege, access, energy, time, and most importantly money. We like to think of change-makers as almost superhuman but they all have to eat (more junk food than normal), sleep (for way less than they should) and they can’t conjure up that elusive 25th hour in the day. Even something as low tech as emailing photos from a protest to your local paper is about a million percent easier with a smartphone than with a traditional camera and snail mail.

Wait…Activism doesn’t cost money!? Like a nightclub without a cover fee, activism may seem free, but there are of- ten hidden costs. You may need to take time off work to attend a meeting. You might have to pay for gas or public transportation in order to get to an event. You could have to print off posters to advertise your cause. Not to mention hosting fees for your websites, or the opportunity cost of spending all those hours writing blog posts or shooting and editing YouTube videos. Some people spend thousands of dollars a month on creating digital content. That may sound like a lot – but we’ll be talking about strategies for monetizing your online activities in later chapters.

Now, of course, access to the internet is not universal, even in the US. For the majority, the internet is available even if it’s only on your phone or at the local library or using the free Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop. The internet doesn’t physically make the world smaller, but it is making the world a more interconnected place. It can eliminate the need for meeting in person by:
• Putting you in touch with smaller, local organizations which may not get as much media attention

• Allowing you to participate in long distance meetings via Skype or Hangouts

It can also ease the research process. Everything is but a click away online, just putting a few keywords into a search engine and hundreds of thousands of results. You can even find books and online journal articles. Don’t have time to read all the newspapers for mentions of the Affordable Care Act? Set up a Google Alert and you can receive a daily digest to your email address.

One of the best things that digital media does for activism is putting your cause in front of people who aren’t necessarily looking for it, all thanks to one little status update. All the time you could spend educating one individual can be spent teaching hundreds or thousands or millions of people from New York to Nepal, from Kentucky to Kenya. Supporters can often contribute online with less effort than would be possible offline. For instance, sharing a news article on Facebook can reach hundreds of people. If anyone wants to try getting a physical news clipping in front of that many people, let me know how that works out.

For working parents, the lower effort levels are essential. Not everyone has the time to take part in traditional activism methods, and that’s okay. Thanks to this lower time commitment, you can attract a much larger pool of supporters and encourage a high level of debate and engagement from people who don’t consider themselves activists.


Another thing to think about is the virility of the internet. The Ice Bucket challenge from the summer of 2014 is undoubtedly one of the best recent examples. The silly campaign where people challenged their friends and family to dump buckets of ice water over their heads to raise money for ALS. The campaign went mega-viral and raised over $100 million, and it helped fund a research breakthrough which could save lives.

Yes, a lot of things go viral online for being stupid rather than necessary. Case in point: The Condom Challenge…maybe don’t put ‘unbreakable’ latex items in the same orifice you use to breathe. However, just because people use the internet for stupid shit, doesn’t mean we can’t use it for good. The internet was designed to change the world – and it already has.

The internet is supposed to be a great equalizer with #NetNeutrality, and that is even more important for people who are often shut out of traditional media. Think about the individuals involved in the Black Lives Matter movement or the Arab Spring, the internet provided a worldwide audience for their campaigns and we’re still seeing the outcomes from both of those movements several years later.

Their stories were overlooked by mass media until they had taken over the social media networks to such an extent, that it was impossible to ignore. In a way, the internet allowed these groups to subvert censorship and increase the public’s access to information. If it hadn’t been for their tweets, videos, and blog posts, these protesters might have been shut down by those who wield power.


Limitations of Activism via Digital Media

Okay, so we’ve just learned about all the advantages that digital media offers to people who want to make the world a better place but the internet giveth and the internet taketh away. Many people think of online activism as shallow, so when you use digital media to promote a cause, a lot of people will see your actions as ‘lazy,’ ‘stupid,’ and even,‘self-serving.’ Why? Because how much could you possibly know about a cause if you’re talking about it on Facebook? How could what you’re doing possibly help? You just want attention and for people to think you’re a good person. Even the word Slacktivism is a combination of “Slacker” and “Activism”. Ouch!

That sentiment couldn’t be further from the reality of what it means to be a mission-based digital content creator, but it’s the public perception.

Slacktivism: NOUN, informal [mass noun] Actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, such as signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website or application. So, what about how digital media can hinder your cause? Let’s dive in and see some of the criticisms of digital activism.

“Slacktivism bastardized actual activism”

Could it be true, does slacktivism harm activism? It could – plenty of traditional activists will tell you that:

• It takes time away from grassroots activism

• It makes activists seem like they’re only in it for the ego-boost • It makes activism appear easy and without effort [ha!]

However, if we’re addressing government policy change and the public view of activism, let’s remember that the Freedom Riders and Vietnam War protesters didn’t have the internet and they weren’t viewed favorably at the time either. The negative energy doesn’t come as a result of using the internet as your medium for change. Humanity has historically struggled with (and fought against) social change; keep that in mind when faced with haters.

“Slacktivists are not active for their cause in real life”

Many people doubt that online action transfers to offline. There are numerous research studies on the effectiveness of online advocacy, but the most important takeaway is that a single isolated action is not going to impact change on its own. Changing your default image to a particular color or sharing one post about an issue will have little impact. Change occurs when activists develop campaign strategies around several points of action over a longer period.

A lesser known campaign that was very effective was the campaign against SOPA or The Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA was introduced in the US House of Representatives in October of 2011 by several members of the House. The bill was led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas and backed by lobbyists from several entertainment studios and the music industry. The goal of SOPA was to stop copyright- infringing websites by blocking them from appearing online.

Simultaneously, The Protect IP Act – or PIPA- was introduced in the Senate. Initially, the bill would have allowed the Attorney General to block sites using a technique that would rewrite the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS). It works by creating unique identifiers to each website. Doing so, critics argued, would create several copies of websites based in different countries around the world that could expose users who wanted to visit the blocked sites to hackers, scams, and other criminal activity.

The opposition was swift. Major internet companies banded together to oppose both SOPA and PIPA. Google, Twitter, Mozilla, eBay, Wikipedia, Reddit, and Craigslist launched a public education campaign online because they believed these laws would make it more difficult for ordinary individuals to share content online.




 “Online activism is too easy to be effective”

Slacktivism appears easy, share a video, change your profile pic, use a hashtag… BOOM DONE. No – not done; come back, sit down. Effective digital activism is hard work. As we saw in the SOPA/PIPA example, tweeting isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of online activism. You need to have a brand strategy, a content calendar, strategic collaborations with non-profits in your niche. We’ll get into all of that but for now, know that it’s like describing the Montgomery Bus Boycott as getting dressed and walking to work one morning. The hard part was walking to work for 381 days with hecklers and violence surrounding them. Some protestors walked for hours each day. The difficult part of online activism is being consistent. Staying dedicated to a cause for years with little traction, even when it gets hard and you feel like you’re not seeing any results but still making your life more difficult than it needs to be. The hard part is putting yourself out there to attract more people to their cause, or to tweet publicly at politicians knowing that trolls will harass you. Digital activists know their activities will come up whenever a new employer Googles them. Is this the same as walking to work every day for over a year with threats of violence? No – it’s not, but it is difficult in its own way.

Are some examples of ways to engage in activism online simple? Sure, but so are plenty of non-digital forms. How is signing a petition online any different to signing one in the street? Because you can use autofill? – Nah, I’m not buying that.

Digital activists can make things easier for supporters by, for example, pre- writing letters to politicians that followers can personalize. Critics may say that this creates a mailing list rather than a group of engaged supporters. But who are they to say who’s engaged – and to what degree?

Another thing to consider is that we are privileged to think that those methods are easy. It’s certainly easy for a college student in NYC to add a rainbow flag over- lay to their profile picture, but how easy is that same thing for the transgender kid in the Midwest? Where they risk losing their homes, friends, and stability for coming out? Not so easy for them, is it?

“Online activism is a Fad”

A lot of things go viral online, sometimes for all the wrong reasons, and yeah, occasionally causes are one of those things: #Kony2012, anyone? Then, in a matter of days or weeks, the movement is forgotten. No one wants their movement to be for- gotten about, which is why we need to work doubly hard to keep the cause in people’s heads when it stops being trendy.

“Online activism creates echo chambers”

Echo chambers are the idea that people build communities where they are surrounded by others who agree with their ideas. People have been making echo chambers since we moved into caves. The thing is, as a species, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. That’s not to say that echo chambers are good, but they’re a product of humanity, not the web.

Yes, you can ignore the friend request from your Trump-supporting Uncle or hide Fox News from your timeline, but before Facebook, you could always avoid his calls and change the channel. The internet hasn’t changed human behavior, just how we exhibit it.

Echo Chambers are dangerous, they have contributed to the rise of ISIS, Trump, and the Alt-Right (a terrible band name, an even worse political movement). How many people on November 9, 2016, claimed they didn’t know anyone who voted for Trump? Yeah, that’s echo chambers for ya.

Another danger with echo chambers is the spread of fake news. We’ll get into this more in a later post on media literacy, but keep in mind the dangers of fake news to effective activism. Why you should listen to those in opposition to your issues:

  • You’ll learn how they feel (and maybe even why)
  • It should encourage them to listen to you
  • It can expand our knowledge on an issue
  • You’ll know what viewpoints you are working against and come up with better counterpoints

“Safe Spaces Threaten Debate”

Alt Right trolls often use the argument that they feel censored in safe spaces because they’re not allowed to use slurs, gross generalizations about entire populations of people, or other forms of hate speech. Their argument is that safe spaces online are a violation to freedom of expression.

Many marginalized groups view safety as a luxury in a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, male world so we create pockets of society where we can feel safe, like gay bars, black churches, or niche message boards.

The term ‘Safe Space’ is often misused but the original meaning was a place where people wouldn’t fear that they would be made to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or unwelcome because of their:

  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Romantic or Sexual Orientation
  •  Gender Identity
  • Gender Expression
  • Religious Affiliation
  • Physical or Mental Ability
  • Citizenship status
  • Nationality

It’s not about being unwilling to listen to another person’s point of view. It’s about wanting somewhere to be, where you won’t have someone screaming slurs at you, somewhere you won’t be beaten up, raped, or even killed. Until the world is safe for all of us, we need safe spaces.

“Slacktivism is useless to those without the internet”

We may think of the internet as a global entity, but we often forget that not everyone has it. Why not? Censorship. Some governments, like North Korea, China, and Iran, will censor their citizens’ access to the internet. Cost. The internet is unaffordable for many people in the world and even, for a lot of people in America. Access. Rural areas often have problems with reliable internet access. Knowledge. Stereotypically, the demographics of online usage skew young, middle-class and wealthy, which can exclude other groups.

How can people impeded by these barriers contribute to a cause online? There’s a lot of stigma for people who want to change the world online but activism needs to evolve to survive, and we need to utilize the tools we have to hand; including the internet.

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