Growing up, most of us learn about the importance of social responsibility and contributing to the greater good of our communities and the world at large. Since childhood, many of us have seen our parents contribute regularly to charities that remain near and dear to their hearts. Giving back is also instilled in us throughout our high school careers, as Ontario students are required to complete forty hours of volunteer work in order to graduate.
Recently, it appears that social activism has become a trend that has been popularized through social media, where citizens tweet about trending causes and post statuses about the latest charity that is gaining the most media attention. If social media users enjoy displaying their support online, it is important to look at the some of the consequences that the internet imposes upon social activism in general. Does online participation in discussions about trendy charities constitute a new type of social activism that can really create a difference? Or, do activism trends mostly cultivate a culture of “slacktivism”?
The internet can certainly be appropriated as an excellent tool for creating awareness surrounding important causes, and can be used to successfully generate social movements towards positive change. For example, the “It Gets Better Project”, which initially became popular through the support and advocacy of celebrities including Ellen Degeneres and Lady Gaga, but also gained a large presence in social media. In response to the tragic suicides of many young people that were mistreated and bullied based upon their sexual orientation, the movement began with the goal to communicate to struggling youth that life will get better. This type of campaign can be understood as successful within the social media world and suitable for the internet, because working towards resolving the issues of bullying and intolerance first requires widespread awareness, and then, ultimately, a shift in how members of society think, speak, behave, and treat others. Through social media and the internet, people can band together and unite for this particular cause, and begin to work towards abolishing bullying and homophobia.
Extending beyond social media’s function of creating awareness, Facebook and Twitter users were recently allowed to make an impact through their simple social interactions during “Bell Let’s Talk” day. The campaign encouraged Canadians to Facebook share, text, and Tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk as many times as they could in one day, and each interaction would result in a five-cent donation from Bell Canada in support of mental health awareness. Bell’s campaign made it unbelievably easy to contribute to a cause, and because most of us are constantly texting, Facebooking, and Tweeting, Bell was able to portray participating as almost our duty as communicators. Further, seeing celebrities and friends jumping on the #BellLetsTalk bandwagon likely made us want to be a part of it. Personally, as someone who doesn’t Tweet too often, I took a few minutes out of my evening that day to tweet and retweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. The campaign was quite successful, and although it was in a small way, I did feel good about participating. It was neat to be a part of something that the whole nation was talking about.
I think that these causes that employ social media as a tool for creating awareness and facilitating discussion allow us to feel as if we are doing our part through simple online interactions. However, this is sometimes a false notion, and it becomes problematic when tweeting or posting statuses about charitable causes begins to replace legitimate social activism. While it can be argued that the “It Gets Better Project” and “Bell Lets Talk” day are positive examples of digital activism, there are still many instances where becoming part of a mere viral online trend is mistaken for as a hip act of social responsibility, or where social media users are under the wrong impression that they are being socially responsible by posting a simple status.
For example, the Facebook chain statuses beginning with “95% of you won’t repost this…” and continuing on to claim that if you support cancer research, you will therefore do your part by reposting this status, are, in fact, largely unproductive. Clearly, doing our part is much greater than a Facebook status or Tweet. While social media and trending can be a way for causes to gain momentum, we must remember that, as change is required in the real world, far beyond the internet, we must ultimately be active in participating and contributing to charities and social issues during our everyday, offline lives.
Thinking about digital activism makes me wonder if those who are extremely vocal online about their support for certain causes also mirror this activism in their real lives. Are digital activists also socially active offline? Let me know what you think, and if you feel so inclined to share your personal online and offline activism, please do!
Let’s get active!
P.S. Another recent social issue to think about: Gun violence and The Sandy Hook Promise. Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Ellen Degeneres all made the promise and tweeted about it. What do you think of this video?