Digital Activism: Is it Effective?

This is a topic I find difficult to summarize my thoughts on. I have considered using social media as a tool for increasing positive messaging to our youth. Recently I have been giving TikTok more consideration as a medium that I could use to reach kids and parents with information and tips regarding digital citizenship. After our class discussion, reading a few articles and listening to a podcast, I feel even more uncertain whether the positive potential of digital activism can in fact outweigh the various negative or harmful outcomes.

Considering Existing Opinions

I read a few articles highlighting and dissecting some of the biggest concerns related to issues of ‘clicktivism’ and ‘slackticism’. The subtle ways that ‘clicktivism’ shapes the world written by Richard Fisher, talks about the negative perception of online activism and states that it may in fact be more effective than people assume. Within this article, Fisher looks at both sides of the coin. He quotes Barack Obama who criticized people for being “as judgmental as possible about other people.” In fact, he states, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” However, while many agree with this view, and the idea that those who are ‘click’ happy are not in fact creating any change, Fisher says that studies suggest that “Sharing and tweeting politics on social media correlates with attending political meetings, donating to campaigns and other forms of civic engagement.” Of course, he does not allude to what studies.

Scott Gilmore wrote an article, The problem with #slactivism, for Maclean’s magazine in 2014. This article was written in response to a number of social media campaigns with high following and plenty of sharing but little impact. Gilmore argues that this approach to activism is lazy, stating that “Even the most indolent can support six causes before getting out of bed, just with the flick of a thumb.” He goes on to describe the results of a study from the University of British Columbia which found that the act of liking a cause is in fact correlated with less actual donating or action. Gilmore states, “Because of Twitter and YouTube, the habit of doing nothing, and doing it often, has become a defining element of our culture.” He even argues that we may in fact make some situations worse.

Some believe that the Summer of 2020 kickstarted an activist movement. According to Kalhan Rosenblatt, NBC news, the combination of the Pandemic crisis, the death of George Floyd and the US presidential election, called people into action. Rosenblatt’s article, A summer of digital protest: How 2020 became the summer of activism online and offline, discusses how Covid-19 not only drew attention to areas requiring serious change, it also brought about the need to approach activism differently. While online is activism is not new, the NBC article highlighted how online formats increased participation for people around the country and world. Real time access to public rallies and riots, brought the fight to the living rooms of people everywhere, increased awareness and raised substantial money for things like the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. Of course, the flip side of this is the meaningless contributions of individuals who did no more than change their profile picture. While there were many forms of meaningful activism, Duncombe, as cited in Rosenblatt’s article, argues that “the ease of participating in online activism can sometimes be its Achilles’ heel” contributing instead to a slacktivist approach.

Amid Coronavirus, Online Activism Confronts Digital Authoritarianism written by Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D., brings light to the fact that activism in an online format can in fact provide creative means for individuals and groups within countries with strict regulations and censorship, to get their messages out. While Covid-19 has cast the typical street rally aside, hundreds of different forms of nonviolent action have provided alternate means to engage in protests. Unfortunately, the increase in online activism and the organization of activist movements has in fact made it easier for repressive governments to track activists. In some circumstances, this has led to more targeted violent oppression on the part of the governments. The other big issue is that these governments can also use media to spread false messages which work against the actions of activist organizations. Essentially, while there is potential in the digital activist approach, there is also many negatives that must be considered and navigated. Pinckney suggests that it may be most effective to utilize social media to organize locally based fundraising, build local relationships and to spread accurate information to contradict government misinformation.

I still wanted to find a little more information on this topic and turned to Podcasts. I found the Half Hour of Heterodoxy, Episode 18: Jennifer Earl, Internet Activism and Fake News, which was recorded in 2018. Jennifer’s work as a professor of sociology and a professor of government and public policy at the University of Arizona, focusses on Internet and social movements, social movement repression, and the sociology of law.  Through her research, she has found that both online and offline activism have their fails. Whether it be a protest, a petition or an effort to spread information, both forms of activism have the potential to sink or swim. However, the use of social media can increase awareness and reduce the cost of organization. Furthermore, she argues that these movements are not as malicious as we think they might be. The key however, is to check your facts, research anything that you are unsure about, and make informed decisions. The internet can be an amazing tool in activism, but it is not perfect!

Final Thoughts

Many argue that online activism has become far too much of a self-righteous form of attention seeking. I see this side of it and I absolutely agree that there are many out there clicking like and sharing, for their own benefit. However, that does not apply to everyone. Online activism makes it easier for people to get involved. Before you criticize someone for their passive approach, consider that this ‘clictivist’ style of activism, may actually be all that they have to give. Use your own critical thinking skills and take the time to consider where the information is coming from, who it might be benefiting and of course, check your facts.

The truth is, like most things, this is not a black and white issue. There is no one answer to the question of whether digital activism is effective. Freelon, as quoted in the BBC article by Richard Fisher, reminds us that “Most truly effective activist movements in the 21st Century are multi-pronged.” Social Media and the internet provide a means through which information can be spread quickly. We all know this can be both good and bad. However, if a cause is really worth fighting for, it makes sense to use all the means that you have available to you. Use social media to spread the word, to organize events and to fundraise, but make sure to show up and walk the walk beyond the click of the keyboard!

3 thoughts on “Digital Activism: Is it Effective?

  1. Gillian,

    You mentioned TONS of great articles– thank you for sharing these!

    I appreciate that you mentioned that both online and offline forms of activism have their downfalls. In my post, I mentioned how really driving a cause home and making a change takes both forms of activism. Yes to critical thinking! I think it is so important to understand the causes you are supporting and their implications, rather than blindly “liking” a post because everyone seems to be doing it. Use those media literacy skills and read laterally! This is something I know I need to spend more time working on with my students… We have recently started research projects, so now seems like a better time than ever to review finding and using credible sources!

    Such a thoughtful post– well done!

    1. Hi Leigh! Thanks so much for taking the time to read it. I thought both versions of your post were awesome! 🙂 I like the use of the phrase ‘read laterally’ and need to incorporate this in my digital literacy education!

  2. I think teaching students how to critically think and evaluate the information they are coming across is important. Doing a good job of teaching students digital citizenship is key to helping students navigate the online and social media worlds. I think that it can be tricky to be an activist both online and offline and that often people really shy away from being activists. Is it because we don’t teach it in schools, or is it because the people around us are not always passionate about activism? Whatever the cause may be, I think it’s important to continue to teach students the best we can and ensure that we do so each and every year. We can’t focus on what the classroom next door is doing, but we can shape what happens on our own. Thanks for the many resources you shared.

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