Image courtesy

Social media activism in Sri Lanka — a farce?

The US Supreme Court’s decision last Saturday to legalise gay marriage in all 50 states was met with unprecedented enthusiasm by young people across the world, and Sri Lanka was no exception. Hundreds of Sri Lankan youths took to social media to express their support for the move, many of them opting to add a rainbow filter (the colours of the LGBT movement) to their profile picture on Facebook as part of a global campaign by the social networking giant to celebrate the landmark decision. While reactions to this campaign were predictably mixed on the local front, the outcome was clear: It got people talking. But were enough people talking? More importantly, were the right people talking?

The effectiveness of internet activism, or “slacktivism,” as some skeptics like to derisively call it, has been a topic of debate since the Occupy Wallstreet movement and the Arab Spring. While proponents claim that the increasingly ubiquitous nature of social media allows for greater penetration and awareness of social and political causes, critics argue that it is merely a means for armchair activists to feel like they’ve played a part when, in reality, their actions online have little to no meaningful impact on the causes they espouse. Anyone can change their profile pic or post a few tweets, but not everyone wants to make a donation or hold a placard at Lipton Circus. However, the passionate activists counter, creating awareness alone is enough reason for digital activism to be encouraged. Real change, they maintain, can occur when enough people know what’s going on. The 2015 presidential elections being a case in point.

The run up to the January 8 polls, or #PresPollSL as it was referred to on Twitter, saw an hitherto unheard of participation of internet-savvy youth in the country’s political process, with innumerable tweets, photos, cartoons, memes and videos being posted and shared on a daily basis across various platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and even Instagram. Even though the actual impact this crowd-sourced and highly organic propaganda drive had on the final results of the election remains unclear, an argument can be made that, given the country’s rapidly growing internet penetration, it helped sway opinion in a way that seemed impossible not even a year ago. And it looks as though this trend will only continue with the upcoming parliamentary elections. (Incidentally, for reasons that have little do with social media, #PresPollSL also saw the highest ever voter turnout for a presidential election in Sri Lanka: an astounding 81.52%).

There are also the numerous social and environmental causes that crop up from time to time on the local interwebs: from saving the elephants to saving comedians, with varying degrees of public support and enthusiasm. But none more pronounced or controversial than the outpouring of sympathy (and inevitably, heated debate) in the wake of a tense situation that arose in Aluthgama last year where a racially motivated public rally threatened to disrupt the hard won peace and harmony of a country still recovering from a brutal 30-year war. In solidarity with the targeted, many on Facebook changed their profile picture to an image-macro of a hand with the slogan ‘stand against racism’ which was met with either overwhelming support or scornful parody, depending on which side of the divide your Facebook newsfeed was retrieving its updates from at the time. It didn’t help that between the cacophony of alarmists and rumour mongers, and the ground reporting by a handful of brave journalists that night on Twitter and Facebook, there was a lot of half-truths and misinformation being spread about the situation.

In spite of these and other shortcomings, social media seems to play an increasingly prominent role in the world of activism, both locally and globally; and as technology continues to bring people closer together and bridge the gaps between communities, it is clear that the struggles and protest marches of the future will take place in, to use a now almost-obsolete term, cyberspace. This is, of course, not to say that Lipton Circus is about to be a relic of a bygone era. Far from it. Real-life, out-in-the-streets, placard-carrying activism still has its uses — especially in this part of the world; and old-school bleeding-heart types will continue to fight the good fight for a long time to come. That said, internet activism is proving itself as an influential agent of change and, like it or not, it’s pretty much here to stay. Whether or not it will be actually effective in bringing about meaningful, lasting change, however, remains to be seen.

Originally published in The Daily FT.