The Reality of Online Activism

Artwork by Savanna Hocter

Artwork by Savanna Hocter

Battling the cacophany of voices

By Gimel Samera

History is rich with tales of significant events where individuals rallied together in support of a crucial cause or to combat prevailing ideologies they felt needed to change. Just ask your parents or your grandparents to take you for a stroll down memory lane, to their generation’s most notable remonstrations. They may tell you of the time when Martin Luther King, Jr. fought against racial inequality through non-violence or recount the rise of feminist demonstrations in the 1960s. They may tell you of the time when they, too, fought against social injustice with their protest songs, die-ins, or strikes. We like to fight for freedom – whether it’s our own or for others. If anyone violates or so much as threatens to put a dent in it, humanity’s quick to raise its defenses and retaliate. As for this tech-savvy generation’s activists, times have certainly changed in the way we voice out our dissent. In the Internet age, we’re not only waging our battles on the streets but we’re also picking up our picket signs and protesting our grievances on digital soil, and why not?

[pulquote_left]It’s important to remember that it’s in our nature to gravitate towards participating in the current hype if only to avoid feeling out of place.[/pullquote_left]While traditional methods of public demonstrations have not become obsolete with the advent of social media, online activism seems to be the new standard. Scroll down your social media news feed, and you’ll learn about the student protests happening in Taiwan and how they’re utilizing the Internet to propel their activism. Or you might have that one friend who’ll post a lengthy status, discussing the SOPA strike and how the battle isn’t over. Or you’ll read about the Arab Spring as part of the research for a class essay, and study how the community effectively utilized social media to draw attention to renegade agendas. It is not a new fact that the Internet provides numerous outlets for online advocacy. Think of how the process of signing petitions has evolved over time. Rarely does anyone need to walk from door to door, collecting signatures, and it’s been years since anyone’s received emails asking to sign their name at the bottom of the page, as well as encouraging the receiver to forward it to their contacts. Now, there are websites that specifically cater to this form of protest. Moreover, social media users are increasing by the day, and with its ability to reach people on the opposite side of the globe, it doesn’t take long to rally hundreds or thousands of supporters to your cause. It can rapidly mobilize protestors, expose corrupted powers both on a national and international scale, and unite like-minded people across different geographical locations. All it takes is one status, video or photograph to go viral. We’re encouraged to sign a petition, share a viral video, participate on a trending topic on Twitter, be a part of a movement’s Facebook group, or post an outcry as a status for our immediate contacts to see. It’s not just about sticking pins onto our jackets or backpacks anymore. By changing our display pictures to match a movement’s slogan, we’re making a statement, drawing attention, and pressing others to join in.

In the case of the SOPA strike, it would be fair to say that online activism proved effective. However, as numerous as its merits are, using the Internet to promote a social cause is not without its faults. It’s easy to get sucked into the hype of a campaign and be unaware of its objectives and background. It’s important to remember that it’s in our nature to gravitate towards participating in the current hype if only to avoid feeling out of place. It’s one thing to sign a petition or to keep sharing and re-tweeting a video, but it’s quite another matter altogether when it involves financial or personal risk. From behind our computer screens, we only do so much and later, revel in self-gratification.

In 2012, Invisible Children initiated the “Stop Kony” campaign that demanded the arrest of the notorious Ugandan warlord, child kidnapper and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. After launching its half-hour video on YouTube, it received more than 35 million views in less than a week. In four days, the campaign was mentioned approximately 2.5 million times on Twitter. In less than 24 hours, about 300,000 people took the KONY2012 pledge and the organization received a huge sum of donations. But as viral as the campaign was, it barely escaped controversy. Critics attacked the expending of the funds raised, specifically how the majority of resources went to filmmaking and advocacy instead of on-the-ground humanitarian work. There was the accusation of manipulating facts in its video, simplifying an issue that was actually more complex than the demand of Kony’s arrest.

Despite the accusations, the campaign inspired activists from all over to create Facebook groups in their respective countries as a way of stimulating participation from geographically grouped people. One such group existed in the city I stayed in. The organizers would encourage their members to add their friends to the group. I still remember the supercharged comments and discussions that took place. Sometimes, it would get heated and blame shifting would occur when a member or two weren’t as enthusiastic as they were supposed to be and it increasingly became evident that some of the “young activists” were in it for the thrill. It was treated as a badge to show that they were making a change in the world. Let’s not forget the excitement that built up around the “Kony 2012 Cover the Night” campaign. Activists were asked to drive around cities, putting up bright red posters emblazoned with messages of peace and the need to fight for a common cause. However, the campaign flopped. Invisible Children may have succeeded in mobilizing young people online, but it failed to turn their activism into real world reforms. From the comments of activists, it looked like they were far more excited about the prospect of going out into the streets at night, putting up posters than getting Kony arrested. In a few months, the hype died down and members began to slowly leave the Facebook group. Invisible Children did not meet its objective: at year’s end, Joseph Kony was not arrested and very much still-at-large. By signing up to these groups, users receive what Kevin Lewis, a professor of sociology at the University of California, would call: “reputational benefits[i].”

Online participation can only achieve so much; signing an online petition can only prove to be effective if it meets its objectives. The same can be said for any movement that takes place online. An online protest is only successful if it involves extensive and active offline participation. Does online rage result in tangible offline action or does it only end up being a part of the online noise? How effective is online protesting as a method of change? As journalist Anthony Shadid said when asked about the intensive use of social media during the Arab Spring, “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood[ii].”

Here’s another point to keep in mind: as quick and easy as it is to spread factual information on the Internet, the same can be said for the dissemination of false information. It makes one wonder how many of us have fallen victim to supporting social campaigns without double-checking the details given to us. Just as the Internet is a treasure trove of information, it can also lead people to believe half-truths. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a news report of a disfigured three-year-old girl who got kicked out of KFC because her appearance scared off customers. The allegation against the famous fast-food restaurant was posted on the little girl’s Facebook page, titled “Victoria’s Victories” and within minutes, social media users quickly showed their outrage against KFC, calling for a boycott. In response, KFC released an apology almost immediately after the incident with a vow to donate $30,000 to Victoria’s medical bills. Moreover, online donation sites such as facilitated raising more than $135,000 from over a 1000 people. However, new allegations surfaced claiming that the story was a hoax that the family concocted to bilk people into donating money, as well as free surgeries and gifts. Security footage showed that Victoria and her grandmother hadn’t set foot in that particular KFC branch. Presently, well-wishers who donated money through are requesting for refunds as the case undergoes further investigation.

The world of social media is evolving everyday and by the looks of it, online protesting, Internet activism, digital advocacy – whatever you want to call it – is here to stay. Whatever the issue, a lot more people are resorting to online protests. It’s a wonderful thing, the desire to help and fight for the rights of people but it’s equally important to be aware of the snares that can entangle you if you don’t get your facts straight. Not every dire cause we see on our social media newsfeed has a justified objective. In the virtual world where many campaigns are competing for supporters and viewership, social media movements may not always be truthful about their objectives. They’ll stretch a few things here and there. It’s all in how well you can make the details work for you. So before you decide to pick up your digital picket sign and hit the social networking scene with a loud protest, take a moment to do a little more research.

After all, there’s no harm in being smart about the issues and though social media networks are protest tools, their effectiveness does have limitations. It’s not enough to like a status, share a video, change your display picture and participate in anger-fueled discussions; there’s no reason to revel in self-gratification or give yourself a pat on the back. For an online protest to be successful, we’re talking long-term devotion, and what that means is to be far more proactive than counting a “like” or a “share” on Facebook as signs of protest. We have to unplug and face the real world.


[i] Goldberg, Eleanor. “Dislike: Facebook Activism Doesn’t Actually Translate Into Donations For Causes.” The Huffington Post., 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 July 2014.

[ii] Sander, Thomas. “Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s Role in Arab Spring (Middle East Uprisings) [UPDATED 7/7/13].” Social Capital Blog. N.p., 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 July 2014.