Armchair Activists

Wednesday, January 20, 2016. My 6:00 AM alarm wakes me from a restless sleep. I throw on my clothes, check to make sure that my bag has water and plenty of snacks, and head out the door. The roads are still relatively quiet. But as I turn into Planned Parenthood I see a huge Greyhound bus and a large crowd. Despite the early hour, I spot my friends Claire and Livi jumping up and down waving at me. Going to school today is no longer a priority; it’s time to exercise my first amendment rights.

We arrive in DC and are dropped off a few blocks away from the steps of the Supreme Court. Claire, Livi, myself, and about 40 other people clamor off the bus to join the crowd to support Planned Parenthood’s most recent federal funding battle with the Supreme court. We chant in both Spanish and English, hold our handmade signs, and listen intently to speakers from around the nation in support of our cause. Pro-life demonstrators attempt to disrupt the rally with microphones and graphic signs with explicit language and imagery, but the deafening roar of our group drowns out their best attempts to stop us. I can quite literally feel the support of those around me, with everyone huddling for warmth in the cold January weather. I take it all in and let myself be fully present in this moment. Raising my voice, I join the endless sea of faces shouting: “Women’s rights are human rights!”

I like to think I made a difference that day. My physical presence signaled my support for Planned Parenthood to legislators, judges, and those who saw the rally on the news. Since then, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many digital activism campaigns that I’ve encountered on social media. Is it possible to make the same impact using the digital medium? Short answer: it’s complicated.

On March 5, 2012, a non-profit organization operating in Uganda named “Invisible Children” released a 30-minute video titled “Kony 2012.” The video, which details atrocities like turning children into sex slaves and child soldiers committed to the Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, created a digital firestorm overnight. Within six days of the video’s release, it had become the most viral video ever at the time, with over 100 million views. On Twitter, celebrities like Oprah, Justin Bieber, and Kim Kardashian all tweeted links to the video using the hashtag “#Kony2012.” Over 5 million tweets featured this hashtag that first week. To say that “Invisible Children” had captured the attention of the Internet is an understatement. In theory, all of those who had tweeted, shared, or even watched the video were ready to mobilize, and “Invisible Children” just had to tell them what to do. Yet, instead of asking for donations or other tangible support, they stated that their goal was to, “change the conversation of our culture and get people to ask, ‘Who is Joseph Kony?’” (Invisible Children)

While short term they certainly succeeded in their goal, as proven by the extremely viral nature of the video, the entirety of the campaign did not bring Joseph Kony to justice. To date, there has been no further information offered on the whereabouts of Joseph Kony. That being said, Kony 2012 helped to indirectly push the U.S government to authorize $28 million dollars and a U.S. backed Ugandan security force to try to find Kony. Nonetheless, Kony remains at large, erased from the public consciousness. In the long term, the “Invisible Children” campaign did not achieve their goal. Their galvanization of the U.S public was fleeting at best, and they have little to show for their efforts. In fact, the original video has only been watched an additional 1.5 million times since the initial viral release. “Invisible Children” had found the perfect formula for a viral movement, yet had no idea how transform the explosion of support into sustainable success.

In failing to capitalize on the massive support it gained from the video, “Invisible Children” was seen by many as pandering to Americans’ sense of empowerment. Critics of the movement were quick to point out that the act of “liking” a Facebook page has no tangible effect beyond giving the user a sense of satisfaction, which pushed YouTube user MisterBiscuitMusic to ask: “Do you want to make a difference, or do you just want to look like you made a difference?”(Briones 220) MisterBiscuitMusic was not the only one to make this observation. For example, in an article for The Atlantic, Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub suggested that “the new video instructs its audience to put up posters, slap on stickers, and court celebrities’ favor…At that moment, sufficient awareness will have been achieved, and Kony will be magically shipped off to the International Criminal Court to await trial.”

Invisible Children responded to this criticism with a second branch of the campaign called #coverthenight. In this portion of the campaign, they urged individuals to take to the streets, “plastering every city, on every block around the world with posters, stickers and murals of Kony to pressure governments to hunt down the guerilla leader” (Invisible Children). In concept, this was a potentially a good idea since socially conscious graffiti would be appealing to young activists. However, this transition away from online activism had little success; the video amassed a measly 253,000 views. Covering the “cover the night” event in Brisbane, Australia, The Daily Telegraph described the evening as a “highly controlled gathering of little more than 50…amounted to little more than an awkward school dance” (Paine).

Kony 2012 is not the only social movement to experience initial success online and then fail to make a difference. In April 2014, Twitter was taken over by the hashtag “#BringBackOurGirls” in response to the 250 Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Like the Kony 2012 movement, the hashtag was tweeted over 3.3 million times, with 26 percent of these tweets coming from the U.S. Once again, the collective consciousness of the internet had been captured. However, aside from the temporary increase in equipment aid to the Nigerian government, nothing has happened. Today almost all of the original school girls remain in captivity, with only 60 having escaped by themselves. Worse yet, many prominent Nigerian individuals called the international response to the kidnappings “oversimplified” and “sentimentalized.” Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole responded to the outpouring of online support by writing, “Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago…for four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”

I believe there is an immensely important message to be learned from both Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. It is a lesson about the Internet’s capacity to encourage fleeting consciousness. As studies from the National Center for Biotechnology Information have shown, the internet is changing the ways our brains work. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, we feel more comfortable with multitasking, and we have a greater desire for fast changing content to keep us interested. Online activism is no exception. Individuals go from one sensational issue to the next, tweeting hashtags and sharing articles without taking the time to understand the real issues at hand. This has resulted in a false sense of fulfillment to those engaging in online activism, leading to limited progress on the issue. In fact, these waves of hyper-focused Western sentiment can take away from grassroots organizations’ efforts to make tangible changes.

Let’s return to the example of Kony 2012. “Invisible Children” received criticism for taking a Ugandan issue and trying to solve it through Western means. As noted by independent journalist Sonia Paul, Kony 2012 perpetuates a neocolonial belief that “Westerners must go to Africa in order to save it from itself.” Moreover, the video fails to feature the perspectives of any individuals affected by Kony; instead it begins and ends with the story of how Kony has affected the filmmaker: a middle aged white man from California named Jason Russell. In this sense, Kony 2012, and perhaps all online activism, shifts who is being empowered and fulfilled. Instead of those working on the ground in Uganda, or the families who had children taken from them, these cases showed how online activism has the dangerous ability to shift the focus of those engaging in a social movement online back onto themselves.

With all of the negativity surrounding digital activism, it can be hard to find a silver lining. However, despite its problems, I believe digital campaigns will be important to the future of activism because they can be a tool to aid offline activism.

In 2015, the #blacklivesmatter movement, which began on Twitter, was in full force. There were protests across the country in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Protesters flooded the city of Ferguson to express their discontent with the court system’s failure to indict the police officer who shot Brown. However, none of these widespread protests had any organizing body to get people out in the streets like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s. Instead, as Bijan Stephen points out in his article “How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power,” “Social media could serve as a source of live, raw information. It could summon people to the streets and coordinate their movements in real time. And it could swiftly push back against spurious media narratives with the force of a few thousand retweets.” This is where I believe social media has the ability to play a critical role — not as the sole mode of activism, but rather as a tool to better organize those protesting. In this capacity, the function of the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter” is not to just raise a fleeting online awareness. It is instead what Bijan Stephen refers to as “the banner under which dozens of disparate organizations, new and old, and millions of individuals, loosely and tightly related, press for change.”

Another clear example of the organizational power of social media for protests is the immense success of the Women’s March. Just as the #blacklivesmatter protests were organized without an institutional body, the Women’s March was started by a retired attorney who lived in Hawaii named Teresa Shook. However, through the shareability of Facebook, the event was able to bring over 2 million people out in protest across the nation. Undoubtedly, without the help of social media and other online activism activities leading up to the march, a turnout of such size and scale could have never been achieved.

In addition to the organizational power of online activism, it can also serve as a way to counter unfair media bias. For example, in “The Looting Selfie and Portraits of Media Bias in Baltimore,” the anonymous author contrasts the media’s portrayal of the Baltimore uprising in response to the murder of Freddie Gray: “visual coverage of violence is disproportionate, one has to always consider how much those incidents are contained to a specific moment and locale.” In fact, these protests were widely peaceful. According to the article, “Out of the more than 2,000 people who marched to City Hall that afternoon, Al-Jazeera America reports that about 100 were responsible for the chaos.” Nonetheless, American viewers from around the nation witnessed pictures and videos of the isolated violent protests on mainstream news outlets, such as the following image.

It is during these times of media bias that online activism and social media can play its most important role, with peaceful protesters broadcasting the reality of the situation to their followers through services like Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, and Instagram. I believe that social media and online activism can play a key part in aiding offline activism by dispelling the biases of news reporting.

Unfortunately, outside of the U.S. the role that digital activism has played in aiding offline activism has been much less effective because of government censorship. Starting in 2010, the Arab Spring was characterized by the use of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to organize protests that led to massive governmental changes in Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters successfully used these tools to collaborate, coordinate, and recruit more citizens to join their cause. This culminated in one of the major historical events of the early 21st century, the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Undoubtedly, it was through the incredible organizational and communicational power of social media and online activism that allowed for so many people to work collectively to achieve regime change. Since then however, much has changed abroad in terms of social media activism. As Jessi Hempel points out, “governments take an aggressive hand in shutting down digital channels people use to organize against them.” Moreover, governments have gone farther than merely shutting down these methods of online organization. Hempel notes, “These governments have also become adept at using those same channels to spread misinformation…The possibility of creating an alternative narrative is one people didn’t consider, and it turns out people in authoritarian regimes are quite good at it.” Upon reading how governments were suppressing online activism, I realized that the tools for activism whether offline or online are only as strong as the laws that protect them.

Online activism is flawed to say the least. Yet it can play an indispensable role as an organizational tool, certainly within the U.S where 1st Amendment rights protect its use. However, its benefits certainly come with strong drawbacks, fostering fleeting awareness and letting some governments more unfairly suppress their citizens. Nonetheless, I see online activism as a critical way for citizens to express themselves about social issues for as long as the internet remains a part of our lives. For this reason, I hope to use my energy to focus on the positive aspects of online activism while still being cognizant of its problems.


Works Cited

“How the Women’s March Came into Being.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

Anderson, Monica, and Paul Hitlin. “3. The Hashtag #BlackLivesMatter Emerges: Social Activism on Twitter.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. N.p., 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.

“Library Research Guides: Black Lives Matter: Race, Policing, and Protest: Statistics, Maps, & Images.” Statistics, Maps, & Images — Black Lives Matter: Race, Policing, and Protest — Library Research Guides at Wellesley College. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

Pictures, Michael Shaw Reading The. “The Looting Selfie and Portraits of Media Bias in Baltimore.” Reading The Pictures. N.p., 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 05 May 2017.

Stephen, Bijan. “How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power.” Wired. Conde Nast, 01 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Hempel, Jessi. “Social Media Made the Arab Spring, But Couldn’t Save It.” Wired. Conde Nast, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.

Sieff, Kevin. “Boko Haram Kidnapped 276 Girls Two Years Ago. What Happened to Them?”The Washington Post. WP Company, 14 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2017

Sesay, Isha. “#BringBackOurGirls, a Year On: We Should All Feel Shame.” CNN. Cable News Network, 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 05 May 2017.

Madden, Stephanie, Melissa Janoske, and Rowena L. Briones. “The Double-edged Crisis: Invisible Children’s Social Media Response to the Kony 2012 Campaign.” Public Relations Review 42.1 (2016): 38–48. Web.

“KONY 2012.” Invisible Children. Invisible Children, 2014. Web. 11 May 2017.

Paine, Chris. “KONY 2012 — How the Phenomenon Faded.” NewsComAu. N.p., 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 May 2017.

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