Online Activism Hurts
By Mona Farah and Eleanor McAden
Online controversy increased after the Biden administration’s announcement of the Willow project, yet another example of how social media can be used as a tool for protest.
Over the past couple years, from the BLM movement to abortion laws, millions have tried to spread awareness online. But is this new era of activism really for the good of the cause?
Online activism has turned into a trend. Every day, a new issue is brought to light from a glowing screen. People will begin to post about it, thinking they have done everything they needed to show support. Yet this time is spent looking down at a phone, not into the tangible world. Then, within a matter of days, the internet moves on to the next widespread issue, and the person who purportedly cared deeply about it moves on.
Online activism becomes ineffective when it becomes performative, a desperate attempt to convince people that you have the “correct” morals. Although it’s not inherently a bad thing to spread awareness on topics you care about, if the focus is more on you and less on the issue, it turns problematic. In some cases people will start a GoFundMe or something similar to accrue financial support, but most online activism are merely expressions of concern and/or infographics. Yes, awareness is important, but just letting people know a problem exists by reposting something on your story does not contribute towards solving it. Especially considering how social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter are polluted with biased or false information that benefits from sensationalized headlines at the expense of accuracy.
Many movements have paid the price of this “slacktivism.” After receiving temporary swarms of attention, most of them are rarely discussed today. One example is the internment of the Uyghur Muslims in China, where thousands of people began to repost information about the situation. In a matter of days, the internet and social media barely brought it up again. Are the matters which do not receive attention not important? What problems deserve attention and when? Today, the ability that people have to change which issue they want to post about comes at the cost of basic human rights.
People have also begun to spread information in ways that can be counterproductive. For example, the videos on issues regarding human rights usually begin with “if you skip this, you’re racist, homophobic, etc.” Guilt tripping someone into watching a short video doesn’t help anyone. When threatening to categorize people in order to gain views, you take the attention away from a dire issue and focus on your own benefit.
In short, posting a black square on Instagram rings hollow considering the true depth of the issue that day.
Online Activism Helps
By Esther Lee
Easily-accessible attention and support are remarkable aspects of the 21st century.
With the announcement of the Willow project, online activists have already spread their wings and flocked to social media platforms to nest their passion for social justice.
The primary way to raise awareness and make a stand once required physical involvement to some degree. But now, the internet has changed and progressed. Intimate aspects of our lives, feelings, thoughts and days are expressed and exposed to the world.
Digital activism encapsulates both performative and genuine activism. The distinction between these is the presence or absence of our personal desire to increase our ‘social capital’ online by appearing virtuous.
Though if awareness and willingness to help is raised, then isn’t the purpose of activism achieved? Critics believe there must be a genuine devotion to helping and the act of raising awareness. Why, then, should any intrinsic gain be absent when we decide to “join the cause?”
However, this argument is rather extraneous to the conversation if it has no underlying effect on the outcome. If the petitions, donations and stories that are worthy and deserving of attention and support receive it, then why does the way they are gaining it or the people that are spreading it matter?
For the activists who have taken their ‘fight’ online, their power lies not within their voice, but in their ability to share, like and comment. Rewinding three years back, when the COVID-19 pandemic first began, a union of various pledges and donations arose to provide relief for those most in need.
Through creating and circulating the change.org petitions or GoFundMe donations, at least someone’s life was positively impacted. But the effects of online activism during the pandemic did not just change one person—they impacted us all.
Online activism allows for increased spotlight on the social issues that are worthy and deserving of attention. In the process, the people who aren’t able to use their voices in their daily lives are given a place to do so. This is online activism’s saving grace: the ability for people to bring up social frustration and for others to connect to it and work together.
After all, if the boon of activism is to elevate the voices, stories and causes that need attention, then the way support and attention is garnered shouldn’t matter. Only the benefits of receiving support for the cause should.
Even though the traditional way of activism is being superseded by its virtual form, the price to pay is the sacrifice of personal value for the sake of unified social and economic support.