Digital activism: using social media to change to world

Online social media nowadays seem like perfect tools for initiating social change in the world. Anyone with a certain goal in mind can reach large groups of individuals, spread awareness, raise a fund and get people to feel involved. Social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs are popular tools for ‘digital activism’. However, it requires some understanding to turn digital actions into real ones.

Thousands of people join Facebook groups, make donations to support ‘Causes’, change their Twitter avatar, add a badge or gadget to an online profile or just simply get a message across their relations within a social network. These are just some of the countless examples where individual users seem to be digitally empowered to make changes in the world and collectively form an argument to change public debate. But are they really empowered?

Digital activism is still evolving; social media sites have discovered that by facilitating the clustering of individual users that are interested in the same social issues, they could play an important role in digital activism. Although by only bringing people together, the ‘world’ obviously doesn’t change instantly. It takes more than that.

Twitter for Iran, Slacktivism, green avatar

An important distinction needs to be made between ‘slacktivism’ and activism. ‘Slacktivist’, formed out of ‘slacker’ and ‘activist’, is a term that stands for an individual that is supporting a social cause with no or little practical effect, except  for the satisfaction the person feels by doing so [1]. A recent example is the green avatar overlay on Twitter during the 2009 Iran election. By adding the overlay you could show that you supported democracy in Iran [2]. Despite of it being an exciting idea and many people following, one could argue that it was rather a useless act.

Users of social media can be quite self-indulgent. Even when they have no or little knowledge about a certain issue, they might still follow others in a ‘slacktivist’ activity because it does not only makes them feel, but also look ‘good’ and thereby shaping their online identity[3].

However, there are a lot of foundations, NGO’s or non-profit organizations that use online social media to support their campaigns, in addition to offline hands-on actions; talking to (local) authorities, negotiating, suggesting and implementing concepts that create better conditions for people or nature. In other words, effectively making changes supported by digital activism. Not only by using online social media to make people aware of social issues, but also by letting them know exactly know how they could (collectively) effectively act upon them.

Social media researcher Dana Boyd argues that skeptics shouldn’t underestimate the power of social media to bring large groups of people together surrounding particular concerns [2]. I’d like to add that social media can become useful to activism when there is a clear dialogue between online and offline action. In order for users of social media to become more actively involved in campaigns, clear guidelines are needed. An interested user might be passive at first, but may eventually turn into someone taking real action. It’s up to campaign rallyers to create or use an online environment where social media effectively is being used to support their (offline) actions by giving users clear opportunities to become more active. Thus, activism shouldn’t be replaced by digital activism. Instead, it should co-exist and form a powerful combination.

Currently, there’s an online project (in which I am involved) called Rumana’s Sweatsoap initiated by the Dutch foundation Schone Kleren Campagne (Clean Clothes Campaign) that uses social media to spread awareness about working conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh. Next to the social media services they use (Facebook, Hyves and Twitter), a blog is the heart of the project.

On the blog, a young Bangladeshi woman called Rumana shares her real (factory-) life story. (It’s in Dutch, for they want to reach Dutch people and make them realize who could be producing their clothes and under which conditions.) People can follow and share her narrative using social media, but they also choose to become more actively involved by visiting the blog and viewing the guidelines to do so. It’s a good example of an online campaign where interested people do not have to be actively involved, but if they want to they can easily choose to support SKC’s actions. Besides that, the blog allows the users to contact Rumana by asking her questions, which can be seen as a personal method of individual involvement; moving further away from slacktivists, who are only concerned with themselves.

It might be interesting to research how different social media services currently embed (possible) digital activism within their networks and how they could do this more constructively. Is there an effective way to separate ‘slacktivism’ from ‘activism’? Would that convince more people they actually have the ability to change things and act upon social issues globally? With digital activism still evolving, social media companies and campaign rallyers are challenged to think about their opportunities and possibilities to create platform for effective change.

Rumana’s Sweatsoap (Dutch)

[2] The trouble with Slacktivism. Marcia Stepanek, The PopTech blog, 24-09-09
[3] From slacktivism to activism. Evgeny Morozov, Foreign policy, 09-05-09

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