In world of increasing social injustice and political division, activism is needed more than ever. But is a Tweet or Facebook share enough? Meenakshi Parmar discusses…
I think it’s fair to define myself as a slacktivist. A classic armchair activist. I will sit at my computer and feel affirmation simply by reading a couple of Guardian articles. I have often shared photos on Facebook of a protest that I was too hungover to go to. Or have changed my profile picture to show that I’m down with gay rights.
But then I question what it is that I have actually done in terms of promoting or fighting for the causes that I so adamantly support. Recently I attended a Black Lives Matter talk with Bob Brown, the co-founder of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary American black power movement which challenged racism and white supremacy. To hear him speak of the Haitian revolution and the bravery of slaves liberating themselves from their owners, and the relevance that this may have to anti-racist protest today, was nothing short of inspirational.
To believe in something so strongly that you would risk imprisonment, or even putting your own life in jeopardy is something that I, for one, know that I will never come close to experiencing. Settling for something which can be considered as the more convenient option, I use social media as both the means of reading about important issues and the platform through which I both form and express an opinion about them. It could be argued that, particularly for tech-obsessed millennials, the internet is making us a second-hand generation, where picketing and sit-ins have become less attractive in an alluring world of bedrooms, laptops, and information available at the click of a finger.
With most students actively using social media, it comes as little surprise that when a controversial issue comes to the forefront of the world stage, it is through the medium of the internet that many engage with protest. Alongside many of the criticisms levelled against social media and how it comes to shape the lives of millions of impressionable users, slactivism within the popular vocabulary seems to represent something inherently negative. Embedded in the term are connotations of laziness and ease; the Oxford Dictionary defines slactivism as ‘actions performed via the internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement’.
However, why should people be blamed for taking a genuine interest in world affairs and seeking to change a part of the world that they don’t like, whether that be virtually or in reality? The nature of protest is undoubtedly changing, but that shouldn’t automatically be interpreted as a negative thing.
According to data from Ipsos Mori, there was only a 43% turnout amongst 18-24 year olds in the 2015 General Election. In numerous studies, it has been shown that younger people are those more likely to engage with social media; it appears that those who engage with social media the most are turning out at the ballot box the least. It’s no secret that huge numbers of young people are disillusioned with mainstream politics and politicians. Perhaps it’s alienation with the formal political world that has driven young people to throw themselves into online action. In this way, the internet can be seen as a ‘safe place’ where people believe that they can assert themselves and are less likely to be shot down.
With this interpretation in mind, online activism seems a far cry from the ‘slacker’ ‘not doing enough’ stereotypes surrounding it. At the Black Lives Matter talk that I mentioned earlier, when discussing how the movement can progress, the mention of ‘bottom up’ protest rang loudly around the room. If there is no evolution from the top, there must be revolution from the bottom; plain and simple. Could online activism be the most grassroots, bottom up method of protest there is in the Western world? The internet undoubtedly bring together the masses, people from all kinds of backgrounds and intersectionalities, implying a sense of equality and feeling of belonging that are often denied in many aspects of ‘real life’. This was made during early 2011, in the Arab Spring. Thousands took to the streets in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Although these political crises are far from being resolved, the impact of the powerless masses standing against their governmental regimes caught the world’s attention. Yes, this was very much down to the bravery of men and women shouting from the streets. However, through broadcasting these struggles to the rest of the world through Twitter [a means of admirable protest in its own right considering the censorship in some of these countries] , the internet provided a dose of democratic spirit that helped garner widespread opposition to the injustices of their oppressive governments.
Conversely, some may point out the limitations of online protest and its capability to affect real change. In discussion with a group of students from the University of Leeds, one student comments: ‘Online protest just enables people to be cowards behind their computer screen. The only way that I could imagine it affecting any real change would be if it was mixed with real life action’. Another student shared similar sentiments: ‘I think that ‘clicktivism’ enables more people to be involved with protest than would be without the internet; in this sense it is morally successful, but practically unsuccessful in terms of how it is able to influence government legislation’.
It seems that the success of online activism is largely based upon what motivates the protestor in the first place. If your intentions lie with learning about injustices and spreading the word, then the internet is a brilliant place to start conversations and find out about events. One click, a signature on a petition, and a share of a hashtag can go a long way, particularly when in numbers [the internet is an instrumental force in the mobilisation of the masses]. Yet it seems that the critique of ‘slactivism’ is applicable when these clicks, signatures and shares amount to that and nothing else. The problem lies with people not following up on their actions, and online campaigns thus becoming fleeting and short-lived. In this case, it seems that what motivates the protestor is merely self-affirmation and a boost to moral esteem. To ensure that this doesn’t become the case and that the internet is being used as a force for good, emphasis should be on the combined power of online activism and direct action. This would help to ensure that protest doesn’t remain symbolic and on our computer screens.