Does Posting on Social Media Even Count as Activism? We Investigate

Nicole Singh

This feature is dedicated to our #NoChangeNoFuture initiative. From the Women’s March, to Australia voting yes to same sex marriage, and the #MeToo movement, 2017 taught us to look beyond ourselves and come together as a collective of powerful women who are writing our own history. Join us as we cancel setting one-dimensional personal resolutions this January and commit to being the change we want to see. Because without change, there is no future.

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It’s worth introducing myself for this story. I’m a 25-year-old, Sydney-based journalist who considers herself a feminist, and against anything that promotes harmful prejudice. Nice to e-meet you. I also consider myself a rather ‘woke’ person: I’ve shared compelling Facebook articles, double-tapped body-positive images on Instagram, I write about social movements for my job, and on very special occasions (when I’m really peeved) I’ll go keyboard-warrior on Facebook articles that I find to be particularly close-minded. To this day however, I’ve never attended a political march, written a letter to a politician, or knocked on a door for a worthwhile cause. So, do I actually care?

It was on Australia Day this year, while watching a march that was in support of changing the date on Instagram that I felt particularly guilty for my current position (I was lying on a couch, in my pyjamas.) My feed was flooded with posts covered with the Indigenous flag as my friends made very clear their stance on the issue. And while my personal belief is that the date should be changed, does posting an Instagram story to your immediate digital cohort of friends count, if you're not physically at the march? Does it shift, challenge or destigmatise a view? Or are we preaching to a group of already converted like-minded people? So. Many. Questions.

Unsure and guilty, I started investigating this relatively new form of activism. The first time I became consciously aware of clicktivism was during the Kony 2012 campaign, pioneered by Invisible Children. My digital-world was painted with red and blue, and I was pretty sure Kony would be brought to justice directly as a result of the protest. But alas, the clock struck midnight and the promised revolution was nowhere to be seen (not in my part of town anyway). Streets were quiet, and there was no sign of the paraphernalia anywhere. But did that make the entire movement ineffective?

The Oxford Dictionary defines clicktivism as “the use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause”. But online organisation, Clicktivist, debates that it is too narrow an explanation, believing that it also helps in “facilitating social change and activism.” The organisation then also lists the ways in which clicktivism has helped push forward important social movements like the Egyptian revolution of 2011, which according to Wired social media served as an accelerant of, “speed[ing] up the process by helping to organise the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanise international support.” According to Jonathon Hutchinson a lecturer and internet researcher within the Arts and Social Science department at Sydney University, clicktivism has become mainstream within the last 18 years, “Clicktivism really became apparent in the mid-2000s when social advocacy groups began to use networked communication to mobilise large groups of users around social critical issues. It was shortly after this first wave that we saw more and more groups of all varieties using online activism more frequently, which I would argue is when it became more ‘mainstream’ than it had previously been framed—typically mainstream because of the broad groups of users the activity was then attracting.”

When first looking at the term ‘clicktivism’ a similar word almost always appears next to it: Slacktivism. Defined, it translates to “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, or online petitions, characterised as involving very little effort or commitment.” Which leads me to also ask, are we using the ease of a few clicks and double-taps to be apart of the conversation, with no commitment, or is any form of social and political consciousness better than none? Hutchinson thinks that clicktivism and slacktivism aren’t mutually exclusive: “These terms are essentially one in the same, where slacktivism was coined by Malcolm Gladwell as a reaction to the failings of clicktivism. Clicktivism is effective when it is used correctly, for example for a legitimate cause, or where it has a powerful influencer behind it. Slacktivism is simply when there is no flow-on impact from a poorly designed social awareness program.”

In some ways, the argument isn’t which one is better than the other, but how those who choose one or the other—or both—make their cause heard. And arguably, this comes down the nucleus of any movement thinking of ways to engage people beyond a click and into micro forms of engagement in their everyday lives. “Clicking like on a post does very little beyond raising the visibility of the post, but if you can mobilise your audience to an event, or to move on a petition or lobby a government official, then it is effective. It is really only worthwhile when users engage beyond the exposure to the social media post.” Says Hutchinson.

One point worth considering with the immense exposure that comes from a hashtag or influencer’s jumping on board is that while reach may be guaranteed, whether the true intention and quality of the message can be ensured. Hutchinson points out that while there hasn’t necessarily been an evolution of activism within the digital age, that in fact it could be more a “demarcation” of campaigns that work, and those that loose momentum over time. “Campaigns run the risk of losing their impact as they are diluted by users who align broader issues with the original concept. For example, #MeToo became a catch-all hashtag for all issues other than sexual abuse in the workplace. When this happens, users tend to shy from the movement.”

Perhaps, what activism and awareness comes down to for a generation like mine, is parallel to clicktivism, choosing causes that have most resonance with us, and not only showing support on our social platforms but also thinking about actionable ways we can foster change, whether that be in your workplace or attending a march. In terms of your cause of choice being heard, there is no clear way to define what one or the other is more integral. Hutchinson explains, “[activism and clicktivism] are similar in many ways (beyond the scale at which social media can move). You could still hand someone a pamphlet and they won’t read it, much like a news feed post rolling past. It is in how you communicate the message that is of significance between significant and insignificant social movements."

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