How valuable are online networks in creating social change?

Social media has created a participatory culture, in which small-scale actions such as status updates, hashtags, and “Likes” engage us within a  larger dialogue with the rest of the world. Take, for example, two social movements whose momentum was gained primarily through online networks — KONY 2012 and the Human Rights Campaign (remembered mostly from its red marriage equality sign).

The KONY 2012 video was created by the non-profit organization Invisible Children in its efforts to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony, a man who has led the militia group in abducting children and forcing them to fight as soldiers in Uganda. After the video became viral on Youtube in the spring of 2012, individual viewers were propelled to do what they could – write letters, make phone calls, and utilize social media – in order to pressure the government to do something. Facebook and Twitter feeds became saturated with status updates that included the hashtag #KONY2012 in a large-scale effort to stop Kony.

What is remarkable about KONY 2012 is that it appealed to a sense of connection between humans that was only heightened with the emergence of social media. A user could now feel a sense of solidarity and unity with Tweeters like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber, two names that were vocal in their awareness and determination to stop Kony with the #KONY2012 hashtag.

A similar phenomenon occurred with the red marriage equality sign movement, launched by the Human Rights Campaign. For a short period of time, large numbers of people changed their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter to a red equal sign as a symbol of their support for gay marriage to be legalized and for equal rights to prevail for all.

Image courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee

Image courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee

There is criticism that the supporters of these social media movements are participating in “slacktivism,” in which users support causes too simplistically and superficially by sharing status updates, joining Facebook groups, or signing online petitions. This form of participation brings about an illusion of actual effectiveness and feeds into an individual’s moral compulsion to do good in the world, but doing so conveniently and comfortably from a mobile phone or computer screen, without much effort.

However, while these individual actions of slacktivists are seemingly ineffective on a micro-level, they contribute to an unprecedented and powerful form of activism that is made possibly only through technologies like social media, especially because it is on such a large and collaborative scale. If these viral campaigns did not exist, the possibility of people staying mostly in the dark when it comes social issues is all too likely. They take critical issues and place them at the forefront of the user’s attention, which is arguably more productive than the latest amusing meme on a Facebook feed. They also tap into an apparent universal care that people have about the world they live in.

This is not to say that social media activism is completely flawless.  By jumping on a bandwagon of social engagement, individual users might not necessarily know or take the effort to educate themselves fully on the movements they claim to be supporting. The Huffington Post best articulates the detriments of the red equal sign campaign and supporting the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that has been admonished for not demonstrating the same regard for equality when it comes to racial, transgender, or class rights.

However, in the world of activism and mobilizing for change, it can’t be ignored that social media is increasingly valuable as a collective and collaborative tool. The issue at stake lies in whether or not it can be used correctly.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Ryohei Noda


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