October 3, 2012 by The Cycling Feminist
No one can deny that we are currently living in a time where information is available to many more individuals than ever before. Social and political issues that may not have come to the forefront of social discourse before are now openly discussed and shared among online communities and social media. Widespread access to this type of information may lead more individuals to take a stand against certain social justice issues. But does it do so in every case?
In Manuel Castells’ article “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society”, he argues that social movements are reaching a far larger audience on the internet, and that more often than not their aim is to bring attention to values and interests that are entrenched in certain institutions. By reaching a larger internet audience, Castells’ states that it is possible to mobilize many people and create a shift in power relations, also known as counter-power. Clay Shirky also sees the value in online social activism, and in his essay in Foreign Affairs, he states the importance of social media in organizing and mobilizing “nearly all of the world’s political movements”, from government protests in Moldova, Belarus, and even the use of text messaging in organizing the overthrow of the president of the Philippines. A more recent example of the importance of social media in creating counter-power could be seen just a few years ago during the events known as the Arab Spring.
According to both Castells and Shirky, social media is the way to go if you want a social cause to turn into a movement. But does this have a real social effect in all cases? Take for instance the Kony 2012 campaign that was launched in March 2012. An organization known as Invisible Children employed the use of online media by launching a 30 minute video on YouTube explaining how young children were being persecuted and recruited as child soldiers by militia in Uganda. This campaign was initially highly successful because they found a way to convey this message simply, using images that challenged viewers to action. Taking into account what Castells says about counter-power, Invisible Children were able to disseminate their platform for change via the internet and social media, and call on Western countries to oppose abuse of power globally. Furthermore, they launched a campaign whereby supporters could purchase bracelets, t-shirts, stickers and posters and literally “show” that they were supporting this cause. Castells states that social movements “adopt the values…that are specific to the kind of society where they take place”, and not only did Invisible Children appeal to the masses in a capitalistic kind of way (i.e.: purchasing of goods), but they also portrayed a system of beliefs (e.g.: freedom, the right to childhood, etc) that are valued in western society.
So was this movement successful? There are currently mixed reviews concerning the success of Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. For starters, some say that
this movement has led to nothing more than what is known as “slacktivism”, or as urban dictionary defines it: “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem”. In Helen Crane’s opinion piece for the Huffington Post, she states that “It seems that social networking has encouraged a kind of armchair activism: people post links to this kind of material, often accompanied by statements of outrage and demands that their friends join them in said outrage. But the indignation stops there.” She argues that individuals may support a cause online, but when push comes to shove, they are not likely to actually take to the streets or write their government demanding action or change. On the other side, Zoe Fox from Mashable argues the position that “KONY 2012 explicitly states that its goal is to make Joseph Kony famous, because 99% of the world doesn’t (or didn’t know who he is — and it has been darn successful at doing just that”.
When considering the arguments presented by Castells, Shirky, Crane and Fox, is it possible that slacktivism may actually be a powerful force for change? As our forms of communication and sources of information become increasingly internet based, is sharing information on social media any less powerful or than taking to the streets?