Internet activism gets a bad rap, in general. It is accused of being impersonal, of allowing people to simply click ‘like’, and then stop caring. However, I think this is far too cynical a view. With the right attitude, the Internet can be an invaluable resource for educating yourself about the injustices of the world, learning to be a more respectful person and even actively changing lives.
Small actions, on a personal level, do more to change attitudes than major protests or changes in the law. Though the common request to ‘imagine a family member in that situation’ is not ideal – why shouldn’t we care about women we aren’t related to? – it reveals a wider truth. People do care more if they see how society’s ills affect those they know and care about. People standing up and talking about their daily experiences of institutional racism or street harassment is the most effective way of enlightening people about their own and others’ participation in such oppressive structures, and eventually, hopefully, of destroying them altogether. In a democracy such as ours, laws generally don’t change until popular opinion is behind them.
Of course, this presents a problem. It makes it easy for people not to care about prejudices which affect those whom they have little contact with. A white, middle class man in an affluent area might care if his female friends and colleagues don’t receive equal pay to their male counterparts, but he will have little exposure to the problems facing a trans person struggling to get even a minimum wage job on account of institutional and personal transphobia.
This is where the Internet comes in.
Through the power of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Change.org and so on, we can get a glimpse at the challenges facing thousands of people, thousands of miles away- people whose lives we might otherwise never have considered. Women in Iran taking photos of themselves without their hijabs on (https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom), Turkish women laughing in defiance of a call for ‘chastity’ (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/30/turkish-women-defy-deputy-pm-laughter), people who have to choose between feeding their children and paying their bills (http://agirlcalledjack.com/2012/07/30/hunger-hurts/)– they are so much more real and personal than a cold consideration of problematic laws in countries far away from us. The tragic circumstance of Richard Mayne’s death in the MH17 crash could never have prompted such a generous flood of donations to the charity Kidasha if it weren’t for the Internet. Hundreds of charities tackling numerous problems gain publicity solely through Internet activism, and projects such as Hollaback and We Are The 99% have brought to light issues which are easy to ignore – if they don’t affect you.
Yes, sometimes Internet activism is nothing more than ‘clicktivism’. We all remember Kony 2012. The existence of marketing campaigns such as UNICEF Sweden’s ‘Likes Don’t Save Lives’ prove that there is still much more to be done if vague affiliation with a cause is to become more meaningful and more productive. But to dismiss the influence of the Internet, and its power to expose us daily to issues that we can actively change, is to be far, far too small-minded.