Internet activism raises as many problems as it fixes

Here’s a joke: If you take the “act” out of activists, what do you have? What constitutes an “act,” anyway? A mere click of the mouse or a 140 letter tweet? In all seriousness, it’s hard to envision social change as a text, yet social justice has managed to root itself in the rapidly expanding world of social media.

From the the legalization of same-sex marriage in Virginia this past Valentine’s Day to the first Latin American pope making waves with his progressive stances in the Vatican, one thing is obvious: things are changing.

Technology has been a key player throughout. Within 20 days of Virginia’s decision to lift the ban on same-sex marriage, the search results for “Virginia same-sex marriage” showed over 15k tweets. Even Pope Francis stirred up controversy with his Instagram account (which has over 30,000 followers).

With information so readily available, social barriers are deteriorating and resurrecting in the span of days, being challenged then destroyed in the span of hours. Yet, activism through social media has been given a less-than-flattering nickname for its passive nature: “slacktivism.”

The nickname stirs up almost as much controversy as the issues it advocates. Do critics of “slacktivism” have a point? Or is online activism still a force to be reckoned with?

Co-presidents of Marshall’s Girls Learn International Andrea Gaverick and Emily Strauss, both juniors, work to integrate the club’s online presence and actual presence in advocacy.

“Any kind of form of voicing your opinion is valuable,” Strauss said, while Gaverick added: “It’s also valuable to do something about the situation,”

GLI is an advocacy group and club that interacts with international partner schools in countries where girls are “far less likely than boys to stay in school past the primary grades;” GLI advocates for “universal girls’ education,” according to the club’s description on the official GCM Activities online page.

Although Strauss supports online activism, she believes that “it definitely [has] a stronger effect on what’s actually going on if people are physically doing something.”

Strauss notes the difference between purely online activists and “people who actually make decisions, like policymakers and politicians and things like that—people who are really advocating for these subjects.”

The GLI organization itself has a relatively large presence online, tallying their Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr accounts (not to mention their official website and sister sites). Since the program is international, technology provides a more convenient means of communication. The club also uses technology to branch out similarly, according to Gaverick.

“We do have online interactions with our partner school’s communication center, but we also try and do stuff like planning student advocacy events,” Gaverick said. “We’re actually trying to go out and help the cause.”

While Marshall’s student-formed FAAD/SADD (Friends Against Alcohol and Other Drugs/Students Against Destructive Decisions) club has been mostly inactive as of recent years due to dissolved student leadership, a printable pdf of their pledge is still available on the PTSA official website.

Current sponsor Leslie Barnhart cites the “It Can Wait” pledge against texting while driving as a similar use of social media.

“There are groups that are geared towards internet activism where that’s all that they really want you to do,” said Barnhart on the popular use of online pledges for teens and their parents. “I don’t know that it’s really enough […] it’s not legally binding in any way, shape or form.”

Barnhart also encourages student leadership to put more effort into advocating topics outside of the internet.

“You have the people who show up to the meeting but don’t do anything for the meeting, and you have the people that actually go to the meetings and are participating,” said Barnhart. “You can pretend to be pro-something and write all you want [on the internet], but If you don’t put your foot on the pedal, then that’s not really doing anything.”

Besides matters of passive-versus-active activism, there’s also a matter of misinformation.

“For a long time … Media was responsible for promoting the truth, and that was what journalists were supposed to do, is to make sure … they had the facts before getting the story,” said Barnhart. “But I think that’s even gone by the wayside … It’s just kind of transferred to the internet where people just write whatever they want to.”

But with controversies on the reliability of publications (including journalist Stephen Glass’s fabrications for the New Republic Magazine in the late 90s), can we even trust print?

“We’re seeing as a whole that people believe anything they see in print and … they’re going to take it out of context even,” said Barnhart, comparing the reliability of print and the internet. “I mean, you can type anything you want and you’ll find it on the internet; you’ll find something to support whatever you believe.”

So, whom can we trust? With publications, documentaries and other sources we used to deem trustworthy proving to have their own personal biases, how can we make sure that we’re advocating for the right thing? How do we make sure that the actions we take are the right ones?

“People are always going to have to filter. If you’re a parent for your child, you’re just going to have to teach them to self-censor and not censor for them,” said Barnhart. “Have them see, well, if you’re reading something, is it fact or fiction? Is it something you should believe or not believe?”