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The Digital Activist – Does your voice match your actions?

The Digital Activist – Does your voice match your actions?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how we pick up our smartphones to join in activism by supporting a trendy hashtag.

The hashtag, utilized by millions of people around the world, is a way of tagging a topic and engaging with others who want to talk about the same topic. The shared topic can engage us in pop-culture, trends, politics, or social movements.

These movements are the life blood of potential social reforms because of the capacity social media has in engaging people from all over the world. Prominent hashtags like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #LoveIsLove are some of the examples that come to mind when thinking about the massive engagement these movements have generated on social media.

If you are reading this, you have probably engaged with an activism hashtag in the past, but have you ever thought about what happens when social media activism stops on your keyboard or phone? If you’re living in the Global North, how does your digital activism directly (or perhaps indirectly) affect marginalized folks in the Global South? How does your access to social media make up for the fact that millions around the world do not have access to the technology we have to voice their opinions? This is some food for thought and a point of discussion to explore the reasons why we use social media to support causes.

We, people in the Global North, have become conditioned to check social media for the latest news and see what others think about a specific issue. We may automatically assume that people in other parts of the world are doing the same. We are predisposed to think that by supporting a hashtag on the Internet, we are helpful in creating social change. But is that enough? Is that enough for millions in the developing world whose voices are mute due to patriarchy, poverty, or censorship? We may assume a lot when it comes to global access to information and communications technology, but reality is that millions do not have the ample access we have.

We must ask ourselves these questions as a self-reflection exercise to do better. Our voices on social media raise awareness globally, no doubt about that. However, does your voice match your actions? Does your digital activism ever go beyond your smartphone?

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  1. Julia Zaremba

    Hi Avery, interesting topic, when I find myself liking or sharing something on social media I often ask myself similar questions. It looks like # activism has potential pros and cons. The main advantage, as you suggest, is that certain topics and issues gain a much wider visibility thanks to the increase in the flow of and accessibility to information through technology. There are a few catches, however: first of all, this accessibility is not evenly spread, due to access to technology, education and internet. Marginalised individuals and communities, who are usually the ones who are more in need of social change, are less likely than others to be able to participate. As a consequence # activism initiatives run the risks of taking a top-bottom structure in which those that are directly concerned by the issues at stake are unheard (or at least are not heard directly) and uninvolved. The second issue I have with # activism is that it might become an end to itself. While commenting online and re-posting can be meaningful and important, activism should also translate into results, delivering changes of some kind, and I am not sure that this is always the case with # activisms, some of which are born and die online in just a few weeks. In relation to this I fear that #activism could give people the feeling that they are involved and actively participating in achieving change, and that this could dissuade them from getting involved in offline activities that may require more effort but also bring more results.

    1. Stana

      Hi Avery,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the debatable merits of hashtag activism. This is a question I used to argue about a lot in the past. Also, thanks to Julia for her thoughtful response.

      As she says, “Marginalised individuals and communities, who are usually the ones who are more in need of social change, are less likely than others to be able to participate.” What seems to be missed by the Western hashtag activists (and others, including in the global South), is that those who do need things to change, often have neither the tools nor the know-how to join the ‘discussion,’ whether online or offline.

      Digital activism still seems to leave the voiceless masses of people disengaged and disconnected from the ‘debates’ that are purportedly aimed at helping them.

      For a young (often teen), single, half-literate woman with a baby in Nairobi Kibera slum, where do we think hashtag activism ranks on her priority list if she has to spend her day trying to figure out how to provide some basics, such as food and rent, for her baby and herself?

      Finally, I concur, with both you and Julia, it seems that online activism often becomes an end in itself. It makes us feel good about ourselves because, and some genuinely believe that their mouse clicks and finger taps will do the magic. Others believe they are doing “at least something,” but in reality, both groups are just deceiving themselves. Some are even afraid of hashtag activism, because of the social costs.

      I personally don’t think that online activism without concrete action on the ground is changing anything. It’s better to find an individual or a family in need and help them get on their feet. It is incredible what a month of giving up our favorite Starbucks treat can do for a family in Palestine, Jordan, Uganda, Ghana… if we really care to make a difference. If!

  2. Avery Wilson

    Thanks for your feedback, Julia. You bring great points to the discussion.
    Yes, many hashtag activism posts are born in social media and that’s the same place they die after a few weeks; however, by bringing this discussion alive we want people to reflect on that and how much more they can do to help a cause if they indeed want to create social change. The life cycle of a hashtag activist cause may be a few weeks until the next big thing arises, and most people do not even notice this cycle because most of us are busy with life. Awareness is important; nonetheless, active participation is equally as important (if not more) to follow up with the cause we want to support even after the trendy hashtag stops being hot in the Internet…. and if active participation dissuades people from getting involved, my thoughts are that they were never invested in the first place. But, if they are, then I hope this post makes us all realize that we can do more to help society.

  3. Maxime Devillaz

    Avery – an interesting read, indeed. I’ve also been reflecting upon my own behavior when it comes to ‘slacktivism’. There are certainly many benefits to this approach for all of us who have the digital means, as Julia fills in above. But I also have a feeling that the overload of information, hashtags and activity pushes us a little too far… to the point where many no longer support a certain cause for the sake of making a difference, but plainly because it’s expected. The next trend is just around the corner, and our attention spans are getting shorter by the day. Perhaps there’s both the possibility to feel included, inspired and educated with social platforms – as much as it’s easy to feel distant, overwhelmed and simply be someone to “look away.”

    Also, while many parts of the globe do have increasing access to social medias – thanks to initiatives from big tech conglomerates looking for expansion to get more data – I think you’re raising a good point to not generalize too much about what we deem normal in the Global North.

  4. Claudine Stark

    Hi Avery, I really enjoyed your post. It is definitely something to think about next time we found ourselves engaged in some hashtags about social reforms or changes. Clearly, being engaged means taking accountability to what comes next, the outcomes or end results are primordial and ultimate goal isn’t it? Most importantly what are the consequences for those who have been involved, did activism had any kind of backlash or negative impact? Do activists even care? Can activism survive in the long run? Activism shouldn’t start and end on our screens.

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