Saturday, 10 March 2012

Slacktivism and social change

For the past few months my brain has been on a bit of a vacation... that’s what it feels like anyways. I’m drawn to chick-lits over books on current affairs, romantic comedies over documentaries, and knitting over blogging. When I do blog, they’re not always my own thoughts. I post video clips that interest me, links to online petitions for causes I believe in, or re-write other people’s point of views I agree with... without necessarily looking critically into the issues or organizations.

I’m really not proud of this but, on some level, I guess I feel like I’m raising awareness or adding my voice to an issue I think is relevant.

Slacktivism, defined by Wikipedia, 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... The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more
substantive actions rather than supplementing them.

This Wiki page includes criticism and defenses of slacktivism. One of the critics they cite is Malcolm Gladwell. In his New Yorker article, Gladwell argues that “activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” This “high-risk activism”, he says, is often built around strong personal ties.

For example, the volunteers for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project – three of which were killed and many others beaten or arrested - who stayed with the project despite the risks also had friends that stayed. The Greensboro Four who staged the sit-in at the “whites only” lunch counter of Woolworth’s in 1960 were all close friends. In contrast, he states that social media is based on weak ties and rarely leads to high-risk activism. He writes that these tools are great to get people involved when there’s very little for them to do (like “liking” a page or signing a petition). “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”.

Gladwell also contends that to successfully take on a powerful, organized establishment, activist efforts need to be organized around a hierarchical organization with rules and procedures, and controlled by a single central authority. Social media is not hierarchical but rather builds networks bound by loose ties, where decisions are made through consensus. “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo”.

Because there is no clear authority, Gladwell states that networks have difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. “They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

In contrast, social activist Grace Lee Boggs advises that as we look forward to the social changes that she sees are upon us, we need to rethink the concept of leaders. She stated that leader implies power, and we must embrace the idea that we are the leaders we've been looking for.

Was she foreshadowing the Occupy movement? This movement defines itself as “a people-powered movement” that uses “a non-binding consensus based collective decision making tool known as a ‘people's assembly’”. The movement has been lambasted by many for not having a clear agenda (although, according to Naomi Wolf, this might have been part of a coordinated smear campaign against the movement organized at a very high national level. She reported that they in fact have a clear agenda).

Wayne Roberts - Canadian food policy analyst and writer- defended the Occupy movement which, in his opinion, is based on the same principles as the city-based food movement:

In the interconnected and webbed world created by the Internet, platform-providing, rather than content-promoting, organizations have come to the fore...As social movements catch up, community-based power will gravitate toward organizations featuring platforms, portals and places, rather than specific content—which is why the people who lament the lack of content in various occupations are out of it. Platforms are about opening discussions, not closing them and about providing options not mutually exclusive options.

He goes on to point out that the majority of grassroots food organizations have been platform-based, rather than content-specific. Organizations don’t focus on specific pre-defined issues, but “serve as forums for discussion, and hosts of initiatives and experiments.”

A few days ago, the organization Invisible Children released their latest campaign video calling for the arrest of Joseph Kony – head of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and most wanted man on the list of the International Criminal Court for his atrocious war crimes- by the end of 2012. The much-watched video is a lesson on how to use social media to motivate young people to ‘action’, using a great narrative, cool music and, maybe most importantly, targeting celebrities (and policy makers). The video ends with their call to ‘action’:

1. Sign the pledge to show your support
2. Get the bracelet and the action kit (posters, stickers)
3. Sign up to donate a few dollars a month and join their army for peace
4. Above all, share their movie.

No high-risk activism here.

While nobody is really questioning Invisible Children’s motives or that Kony should answer for his crimes, the organization has been highly criticized (click here, here or here) for a number of reasons including, but not limited to: its misuse of money (the majority of which seems to have been used for its own marketing), its support for the corrupt Ugandan army- despite the fact that Kony is currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its oversimplification of the situation in Uganda, its neo-colonialist ‘solution’ of calling for the ‘White Americans’ to save the Africans.

Ugandan Journalist Rosebell Kagumire wrote:

The film is void of any means like peace efforts that have gone on and it simplifies the war to Joseph Kony — a mad evil man. This war was bigger than Joseph Kony and those who will end it won’t be Americans. It’s a complex war that requires African governments of Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central
African Republic to work together to pacify the region... All in all it’s a very imperialistic film trying to touch sentiments of those who can ‘save’ Africa i.e. Hollywood and the West.
I am glad for social media that we are able to watch this kind of work and we react. This kind of condescending attitude towards Africa and its problems shouldn’t be given space in the 21st century.

For her full video commentary, click here.
For Invisible Children's response to critiques, click here.

In an interview, Grant Oysten, 19-year old political science student and one of the first to post his criticism of KONY 2012, stated that he’s alarmed that people took up the cause so readily without looking at the issue more critically. He worries that people will feel like they know everything about the issue after having seen the video. The purpose of his post, he says, was to present arguments against the message propagated by Invisible Children, in order to start a more balanced dialogue.

He writes:

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

Is that true? Is something not always better than nothing?

Canadian journalist at the CBC, Evan Solomon, questions the KONY 2012 backlash, asking if this is a case of the perfect getting in the way of the good. He states that KONY 2012 is not policy, but a polemic (a form of dispute, wherein the main efforts of the disputing parties are aimed at establishing the superiority of their own points of view regarding an issue) and that the mainstream media should have the courage to admit that none of us would be talking about Kony without this video. “Whats wrong with Justin Bieber telling kids to stop a killer?,” he asks.

He contends that critics are missing the bigger political implication: “can foreign policy be driven by social media and youth activism? Is it smart politics or dumbed-down do-goodism?”


My take home message comes from social activist Grace Lee Boggs on what it takes for change to happen:

“It takes a whole lot of things. It takes people doing things. It takes people talking about things. It takes dialogue. It takes a change in the way we think”.