Updated: Dec 16, 2019
As I’m sitting in my health class, tuning out to lo-fi beats, I hear a loud rumble of shouts arise from outside the classroom. At first, I’m inclined to believe that it’s just the PE class next door causing their usual ruckus, but as kids from my own class jump from their seats and rush to see the commotion, I realize that the synchronized yelling is coming from a climate change strike.
Although I’m a supporter of climate reform for the next generation, I don’t run to join the group outside. You see, at my school, “climate strikes” are simply an excuse to cut class and wear fun green paint. Usually, the “green activists” who attend are ignorant of the true impact people around the world are experiencing due to the effects of climate change, and after the strike is over, there are a couple posts, a couple hashtags, and eventually, the interest dies out. At its core, yelling “Climate change is canceled!” into a mic but not actually providing sufficient information on why people should care and how can they get the government to care is, unfortunately, not activism.
The problem with activism now, is that it’s heavily based on social media, which can mitigate the effectiveness of a particular movement. Even if there are organized street protests, the information about them is mainly spread through the use of social media, which according to many studies, fails to create a genuine momentum to fight for change.
Slacktivism and clicktivism contribute to that feel-good illusion of doing something stimulating, which undermines the push for important issues like climate reform. While we’re seeing protests and movements gaining in numbers in the digital world, these organizations are seeing little to no impact in terms of the real deal. Governments and figures of authority aren’t changing any policies, nor do they necessarily care. This social shift is dangerous. Activism is one of the foundations for justice, and its erosion is a sign that we are losing our voices.
Is social justice trendy?
A glaring example of how social media has led to the exploitation of important global issues can be seen in the Sudanese conflict. While I am in no way criticizing the work true activists have put into fundraising for the humanitarian crisis, I think the “#BlueforSudan” movement that swiftly spread through social media was completely counterproductive in regards to its intentions and goals.
Essentially, the online world responded to violent protests in Sudan by encouraging users to raise awareness by turning their profile pictures blue, the favorite color of Mohamed Mattar, who was fatally shot by police during a crackdown. Soon enough, blue Instagram profiles were everywhere, yet the knowledge of what was happening in Sudan wasn’t. This rapid-fire “support”, originally meant to be an efficient way to educate the world about the protests and pay tribute to a martyr, quickly became a trend in which bandwagoners could jump on to seem politically active. In reality, they knew nothing about the degree of conflict, food insecurity, displacement, and oppression Sudanese civilians were facing. At one point, fake accounts under names such as “The Sudan Meal Project” started profiting off of the surge of activism by claiming one ‘like’ on a post would guarantee a meal to a family in Sudan, this gave them thousands of followers. Once they had amassed such a following, these accounts would change their usernames and content.
It’s pretty clear why this is extremely problematic. The root problem isn’t the fake accounts and the people behind them, rather it is the support they received, the support of people who felt that a follow, a like, a repost, is equivalent to igniting social awareness and change.
These actions fall under a term called slacktivism, defined as the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment. Antonia Malchik from The Atlantic explains that this speedy, new form of activism lacks a base strong enough to challenge authority and change the rules, which results in it ineffectiveness. She furthers that “the trust that walking and walkability build between neighbors and communities, research has shown, significantly increases civic engagement while at the same time strengthening people’s ability to understand one another.” A shining example of this human phenomenon is the Civil Rights Movement itself. The energetic protests took over a year to plan and organize, even longer to amass the following it had, yet, it remains one of the most powerful examples of effective activism in American history to date.
So, how can we cultivate actual change?
As we’ve seen, activism reliant on digital technology rarely brings about real, substantive revolutions. Yes, social media has the ability to inform, recruit, and mobilize supporters, but ultimately, it’s in the flesh connectivity that actually gets the ball rolling.
If you’re passionate about bringing an issue to light, find others who genuinely share the same dedication. Realize that your unfiltered, absolute voice, has the power to fan a flame into a fire. As Moises Naim explains, when “the engine is not connected to wheels... the “movement” doesn’t move.” Real change, comes from old fashioned, permanent political work, sculpted by the devotion and perseverance of activists who truly care. So write to your local representatives, form a community at school, in your neighborhood, talk to people.
Because something that is uniquely special about face-to-face discussions is the meaningful solidarity and hope it creates.