Activism or slacktivism: Is the web making it too easy?

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When Sipho Hlongwane (@comradesipho), a writer and political and social commentator, proudly accepted the ANC Youth League’s disparaging moniker of “Desktop Activist” in March this year, he joined the ranks of activists the world over who use the web to speak truth to power.

The internet, offering free publishing platforms that are constantly evolving, is an activist’s dream. It offers a wide reach, easy access to those in power (in some cases), and with the evolution of mobile platforms, an unprecedented approach to citizen mobilisation.

Hlongwane was protesting the Youth League’s handling of the media, after it was discovered that they had been compiling “incriminating” dossiers on particular journalists which they threatened to release, should the journalists not follow instructions from the Youth League. Using his Twitter account, @comradesipho, and the #SpeakZA trending topic, he took the Youth League to task for their behaviour. The Youth League responded, dismissing Hlongwane as a “desktop activist” a phrase that was taken up and championed by many, and that spawned a Desktop Activist twibbon (twibbons are images overlayed on your Twitter profile image).

South African netizens in the know took up the cause, defending the Constitution proudly, and with some tongue-in-cheek sported their “desktop activist” twibbons; the who’s who of the ZANet trumpeted the cause to viral success (see the supporting blog roll on Hlongwane’s blog), and we all felt worthy, like we were doing something. Maybe we did. The Youth League didn’t quite limp off tail between legs, but they took notice.

The social and connected nature of the web today has made activism easy. But is it possibly too easy? Is it a good thing that you can feel you are changing the world one click at a time?

How many Facebook groups dedicated to good causes sit on your profile, looking good, but doing nothing? How many email petitions have been deleted from your inbox because they’d come around for the fifth time? Ethan Zuckerman, an early HTML guru now lecturing on digital democracy, cautions against “slacktivism” which Wikipedia defines as “a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.”

As much as the internet and mobile platforms enable advocacy, fund raising and activist communications, they also lead to “point and click” activism. Joining a Facebook group to “protest” human rights abuses is easy. Click the “Join” tab. Your friends know you’re protesting; if you’re a celebrity social networker, your social currency increases; if you’re on Twitter, you retweet the awful statistics and you feel like you have made a difference. But have you truly become an activist?

These days in South Africa, you’re unlikely to feel the wrath of the government for saying, writing, tweeting, or posting something seditious. But your days as an online activist would be numbered in China, Pakistan, Iran, or in any number of oppressive regimes where the government is fully aware of the power of information and communication technologies.

In these and other regimes the freedoms that desktop activists take for granted have real-world consequences; arrest, jail, torture, and if you’re likely to heed an online/mobile call to action, even death. Last year’s political unrest after the Iranian elections, driven by younger citizens and their Twitter accounts, saw Neda Ahga-Soltan become a martyr for democracy in that country as her death from a government-powered bullet was recorded and uploaded within minutes to YouTube. In China, internet activist Hu Jia is well-known for his unceasing criticism of the government, despite being imprisoned and denied medical parole.

While developed countries’ slacktavists point and click for change, the developing world is garnering its tools to covertly arrange meetings, spread dissent and, in the case of more stable developing economies, enable access to banking, wireless connectivity and bridging the “digital divide” for among others, rural women. And while governments crack down on covert activities and seditious idea-mongering by restricting access to the web and monitoring cellphone usage, coders are finding ways around their attempts as fast as they can be instituted.

Zuckerman, advising online activists on how to create meaningful change, suggests offline activity that complements credit card donations or adding signatures to email petitions.  The corollary to this is for truly engaged change agents to demand accountability and action from the initiators. Creating a group isn’t enough; demand regular updates on where funding is going and how it is being used; question the purpose of the group beyond “raising awareness” and ask what the offline activities it proposes are.

The choice truly lies with you, to be a desktop activist, or a slacktavist.

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