The Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword, though these days it’s more like the click of a button is mightier than the sword. Social media is fast becoming an important tool for the activist movement.

I attended a rally today in support of better treatment of refugees, an issue that divides Australians. The turnout was below my expectations even given the fact that many Australians are an apathetic lot. Rallies seek to “demonstrate” to politicians and the community support for an issue and to provide to the public information otherwise censored by the media. When numbers are low, one wonders is there a better way in this digital age to rally support? Should the traditional rally only be used by activist groups if organisers can be assured of a large turnout? Media coverage is scant when numbers at protests are low and publicity is a must for any campaign.

Pre-Internet protests relied on word of mouth, petitions, pamphleting, posters and membership in a political party such as the Socialist Party to bring like-minded people together to fight for a common cause. As a result of this networking, there was the tendency for the same group of people to come together and hence the term “rent a crowd” was often thrown around to discredit such groups. This is still a problem to some extent today and I often see the same faces at different rallies. It is actually difficult for an “outsider” to find out about rallies and other visible protests.  As I am not affiliated with any trade union or political party, I have relied on Facebook or links to online lobby groups like GetUp to stay informed. Social media has the potential to broaden the reach of a campaign and to provide a support base that is more inclusive of the general public. The wonderful thing about social media is that contact with one person has a multiplying effect as people “‘like” and “share” links.

Numerous e-petitions float into my inbox each week via Charge.org, GetUp, Avaaz and numerous other sites. It is easy to click a button in support of a petition without thoroughly examining its merits. I have recently become far more selective in the petitions I support. But this highlights the criticism levelled at on-line activism that it is “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” and that participants are unlikely to make the effort to become involved in off-line activism like rallies.

I don’t think e-petitions deserve such a bad rap. Sure it’s easy to sit at a computer and say “Hey, I agree with that” and then click Support. The participant may then feel that they’ve done their bit to fight for a cause. Some people seem scared to participate in rallies possibly because the media only gives major coverage when some demonstrators become violent, giving the impression that all rallies have the potential to be violent and that arrests are always imminent. Most rallies, in reality, are peaceful. Online activism is an avenue through which anyone can voice their opinion from the perceived safety of their home, at their own convenience, at no cost and without interrupting family or other commitments.

People that use social media to support a cause aren’t necessarily “slack.” The Dynamics of Cause Engagement study 2010 by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Worldwide found that Americans who support causes via social media participate in more than twice as many supportive activities (both online and offline) when compared to non-social media people. They are

    As likely as non-social media promoters to donate
    Twice as likely to volunteer their time and participate in events or charity walks
    Three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of their cause
    More than four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact political representatives

The study highlights to activist groups the fact that personal contact through social media can be a gateway to greater involvement and a tool to strengthen engagement and even to radicalise a movement’s participants.

Politicians and business should not ignore or discredit on-line activism either. It can mobilise a large group of people very quickly. Rallies, on the other hand, take time to organise, especially due to red tape which requires permits for assemblies and marches.  Recently, Alan Jones, a radio presenter, commented that the Australian Prime Minister’s recently deceased father died of shame. Outrage at his comments was instant via social media and advertisers were pressured to withdraw their backing. Alan Jones cried foul play and bullying but the public spoke loud and clear via Internet feedback.

The success of e-petitions is hard to gauge as online petition sites are not keen to provide statistics. They will cite recent successes only. My observations are that the petitions that usually succeed are the ones directed at private companies that do not want to see their branding and reputation damaged through embarrassing publicity.

The most well-known events where social media has been instrumental in bringing the masses together are the protests at Tahrir Square and Kony in 2012. The long-term effects of both of these events are still to become evident. But what is clear is that social media increase the public’s general awareness of issues and can have a lasting effect on public opinion and therefore on voting preferences. Politicians, activists and political groups should embrace this new phenomenon and try to use social media to their advantage. For instance, Barack Obama raised substantial donations for his campaign by using his site my.barackobama.com.

Then there are “hacktivists” like Anonymous and Wikileaks who have skills that only a minority possess. These activists can act alone, not seeking the approval of a group. Wikileaks has proven that the click of a button has the ability to scrutinise the use of the sword making wars and politicians more accountable.  

The Internet is changing our political environment and we need to change with it. Traditional activism is not dead but it does need social media to help it build momentum and to increase its participant base.

Photo Credit

Slacktivism – http://zeinactivism.blogspot.com.au/

Recent Amanda Makrides Articles:

  • Cut Waste, Save the World. Part 1: Fridge Audit
  • Blow the Whistle
  • Watching The Clock
  • What the World Needs Now
  • If It’s Too Good To Be True…

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