Social media campaigns like #bringbackourgirls, #Ferguson, and of course the Ice Bucket Challenge, are a constant online presence. But what are they achieving? ALISON WILLIAMS discusses the purpose and success of social media activism.

 

The saying “any publicity is good publicity” is a load of bollocks when it comes to social justice and politics. While technology has allowed us to become involved in global issues we would never have previously known of, it has also allowed us to become passive participants in misinformation campaigns and useless fear-mongering – whether we like it or not.

I know it’s harsh, but think about the last time you shared an issue on social media. Was it #JewsandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies or #bringbackourgirls or something else? And what did you do after you tweeted, updated your status and posted on Instagram?

I am the ultimate cynic: I have worked in international development and communications. I have attended numerous workshops and online discussions surrounding the #StopKony phenomenon and shared many opinions online about social media use. But as hashtags and social media fads continue – think Ice Bucket Challenge – I am forced to grapple with whether there is a good way to engage in social media activism. I would not go so far as to write off this new age completely, as Malcolm Gladwell did in his 2010 New Yorker article on the difference between the Civil Rights movement and social media. He said that: “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

So what good is online activism? I would say it does a lot of good… if done well.

I woke one morning in 2012 to see my Facebook feed littered with statuses and links regarding a new movie clip about Joseph Kony, a now infamous leader of the rebel movement in Uganda. I cringed without even watching it. I’ll admit I was a little peeved that friends of mine who have never previously shown any interest in Africa, and the many issues I had spent three years studying in my undergraduate degree, were suddenly deeply passionate about this one injustice. But my friends were not sharing information about the history of conflict in Uganda, or advocating the support of organisations that were working in Uganda to alleviate the pain caused by Joseph Kony (of which there are many), nor were they having discussions about the value of Western interventions in African nations.

As the #StopKony campaign went viral it became clear that a new age of activism was upon us.

Earlier this year the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria sparked an international media storm with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. While the sentiment was clear – Boko Haram are baddies – the purpose of the global sharing was not. Countless celebrities, including Michelle Obama, posted pictures of themselves holding signs with the hashtag. People around the globe posted links to the news, expressing their deep sadness and the need for international assistance to a country in crisis.

I wasn’t unmoved. The kidnapping took place a few hundred kilometers from my birthplace in Africa. I am well aware of some of the political complexities. But the calls for international assistance were naïve and failed to recognise that Boko Haram have been creating terror in northeastern Nigeria for the last couple of years. Barely a month prior to the kidnapping, a large group of boys was kidnapped in the same region, and Boko Haram is responsible for hundreds of murders. Why were we suddenly concerned with the fate of these girls? And why were our responses so laden with imperialist tendencies?

That is not to completely put down people’s sense of connection to global issues. One of the greatest gifts of our age is that, due to our access to information, we have more potential than ever before to understand and alter the reality of injustice and inequality in our world.

However, sometimes all our liking and sharing appears to do little to actually change the situation. So is there really any point?

Rather than seeing social media interactions as resolving problems with actual solutions, hashtag activism is largely about changing the perceptions and behaviours of the individuals who participate in it; it is about education and awareness. Most of us can agree that more people knowing about the injustices happening in our world is a good thing. But I believe that in order to create significant, real change the participation of those directly affected is required.

Of course if activism did both, that would be amazing. In the case of #StopKony, Invisible Children could have consulted more with Ugandan nationals about strategies for alleviating the effects of Kony’s terror on the broader population. The information that was then shared globally could have carried depth of experience and wisdom about Uganda to the rest of the world.

These events, and the ensuing media attention, have given rise to a great increase in positive and constructive conversations on social media about the issue of asylum seeker rights. Grassroots action, combined with hashtag activism, is creating change that is desperately needed in our media. Judges who are presiding over the court cases of those arrested are applauding their work, rather than sentencing them. People are using #LoveMakesAWay to create much needed noise and disruption in the social media discussions about “boat people”.

Situations like #StopKony and #bringbackourgirls are fantastic opportunities to learn about places and issues we hear little about in the Australian media. We can educate ourselves, and our entire social networks, about injustices, and create dialogue about effective social change for the long term. But let’s be realistic about what exactly we are going to achieve, and thoughtful about the information we share.

Hashtags like #LoveMakesAWay have the potential to change the conversation. Thank goodness.

It’s not as glamorous as liking and sharing a video of cute children or something glaringly horrid. But education and awareness-raising are the very actions that will begin to change our world.

 

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