By Shruti Sonal:
Online activists or “slacktivists” as they have been termed by some, are often criticised for robbing the term activism of its meaning. These are the people who change their profile pictures to condemn an event, tweet with hashtags and sign online petitions. Cynics have argued time and again, that sitting in the comfort of their homes, these acts involving a simple click, are nothing more than an illusion. Without facing the wrath of authorities and the harsh life associated with offline activism, they create a false sense of power and strength of internet opinion. Thus, while the internet has made it easier for us to raise their voices, the massive flow of information has also made it easier to forget.
The question then is, how much of what we do online really makes a difference? In a world where more than 2/3rd of the population has no access to the Internet, can it really be an effective tool for activists and altering ground realities? According to The Guardian, a study by Journal of Sociological Science analysed the “Save Darfur” campaign that gained massive support on Facebook. It found that out of the one million-plus people who had signed up, less than 3000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years. However, not all campaigns play out in this manner.
Online activism began as, and continues to mainly be a platform of bringing together like-minded voices on issues happening in the real world. One way in which the internet helps is to mobilise people and resources for spontaneous campaigns or relief during natural disasters. Be it during the Arab Spring, or the outrage in the aftermath of the December 16 Gangrape in Delhi, they allowed more and more people to pour out on the streets and exert pressure on the government. The online platform often proves useful to pool resources and spread the word about offline campaigns such as ‘Black Lives Matter‘. More recently, the Chennai floods saw an outpour of help on the Internet. Not only was a crowdsourced effort to map inundated roads in Chennai undertaken, an online Google spreadsheet was also created, in which people put information of available options for temporary stay for displaced locals in Chennai.
Apart from these instances of providing support for offline causes, internet and social media have also come up with well-directed efforts at starting campaigns on their own. A popular tool of online activism is the concept of online petitions. Change.org that allows users to create petitions with specific signature targets, explains how it works:
“When you specify an email address for your target, each time a supporter signs your petition, an email is automatically sent directly to that person. Governments, companies and individuals value their reputations and feel accountable to their neighbours, constituents and customers. When hundreds or even thousands of emails arrive in their inboxes, the message is very hard to ignore.”
On its website it has listed several victories. While YouTube responded to a 52,000 signature strong petition to bring down videos exploiting Indian children, another led to the sanctioning of Rs. 1.5 crore by the Central Railways to build a foot-over bridge for the visually impaired near the railway lines in Vangani, Mumbai.
A number of examples can also be quoted from Humans of New York, a photo blog started by Brandon Stanton that’s changing lives of people simply by sharing their stories online. Brandon has been using his following to travel to other countries like Pakistan and Iran and also documenting the experiences of refugees to dispel the misconceptions in public mind. His work has often led to real change. Just to highlight one instance, when Brandon visited Pakistan last year, he helped raise over $1.2 million for an organisation called Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLFF).
Another central element of online activism is the making of short documentaries and movies. A brilliant example of this is Kony 2012, a short film produced by Invisible Children Inc. that was released on March 5, 2012. The film’s categorically aimed at promoting the charity’s “Stop Kony” movement to help arrest Joseph Kony, an African militia leader and indicted war criminal, by making him globally known. The video, uploaded online, became viral and created intense public pressure that resulted in a resolution passed by the United States Senate to send troops by the African Union.
Thus, while it is obvious that profile picture filters and “prayers” in the form of hashtags do little to combat larger issues like terrorism or migration of refugees, online activism cannot be dismissed as a tool of the laid back. If used wisely to facilitate the gap between those who have resources and those who need them, it can really lead to changes at the click of a button.