A Scrutiny of Scrutiny: Online Activism’s Real Power
By Lisa Leung
When I was younger, I believed that I had the power to change anything and everything. It was a universal belief, it seemed. Why wouldn’t it be true? I, and my classmates too, had limitless bounds of energy and drive and the world had limitless problems for us to solve. And so, at 10 years old, armed with our teacher’s encouragement, free blog websites, and mozzarella sticks, my friend and I started our own blog designed to raise awareness about climate change. The writing was terrible, the graphics were stolen, and we ended up keeping the project alive for a mere 2 months. But it didn’t matter; I had done something I could present and be proud of. I had done, at the very least, more than nothing.
In the following years, I would watch the same spirit be presented again and again on the internet. In activist accounts, public stunts, marches, petitions, and movements, political activism continually grew more accessible on a multitude of platforms. People of all ages could learn and advocate for causes they cared about, and many did, taking their newfound skills to the internet and to their real lives. However, as this culture of online activism emerged, an opposing culture emerged too.
More than a healthy skepticism or emphasis on action, this culture against online activism revolved around the undermining of activist efforts on the basis of whether the effort was genuine, worthy of attention, or enough.
A couple months ago, when the Sudanese government imposed an internet blackout meant to silence civilian protesters, social media responded with a show of solidarity. Many users changed their profile pictures to blue in memory of Hasim Mattar, a young man who, while protecting two women, had been shot during a brutal crackdown by the Sudanese military. As the gesture became viral, however, people began to mock it. First, people questioned the genuity of the gesture. ‘It’s just for attention’, they argued. It was a ploy to make privileged people feel good about themselves. They had no regard for the people of Sudan, their efforts to help ended with a Google search for blue and a confirm button on Instagram. Second, people questioned the worthiness of attention of the gesture. (Admittedly, this part was less prevalent with Sudan, as most recognized that the Sudanese conflict was serious. It’s really more prominent with issues like feminism and racism, where people feel as if activists are simply looking for something to complain about. In Sudan’s case, the scrutiny was more about redundancy rather than topic.) “Was another profile picture really necessary? It’s everywhere. I’ve seen it so many times, it’s redundant, it’s annoying.” And finally, third, people questioned the quantity, the completeness of the gesture. “Couldn’t you just donate?” they asked. “Didn’t you eat out yesterday? Couldn’t you have donated that money?”
But I think those questions miss the point. To a certain extent, they can be worth asking. After all, the Sudan crisis’s social media response was, in part, marked by an onslaught of fake accounts asking for likes to fulfill unfounded promises to donate to charity. And it can’t be denied that often, activist efforts can be hypocritical, lacking, or even ingenuine. But, for the most part, questions like these ignore the point of online activism. The mistake so many make originates from expecting the internet to be an appropriate forum for action. But these expectations fail, because these aren’t the internet’s strengths; in reality, online activism finds its power in communication, information and education. In other words, online activism is important because it gives the information and knowledge we need to act.
Following the response to the crisis in Sudan, awareness spiked. Just 2 weeks prior to the influx of blue profile pictures, the week of May 26 - June 1, Google reported relatively low numbers for the search term, “Sudan.” Yet as the movement set in the week June 9 - June 15, Google reported a huge spike in searches for “Sudan,” by 1667%. This awareness led to concrete progress. One campaign providing medical aid to the Sudanese Doctors Union raised more than $530000, with donations still coming in each day. When a petition to recognize Janjaweed was proposed to the White House, it quickly received the 100,000 signatures it required in 30 days deadline in order to guarantee a White House update and response. And in the end, international pressure and scrutiny on the Sudanese government undoubtedly helped contribute to the lift of the internet blackout 3 weeks later, and finally, on July 17th, the signing of the first part of a power sharing deal between civilians and the Sudanese government.
We often underestimate the power of awareness, but in reality, media coverage, has been linked time and time again to action. After the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Cambridge University analyzed the link between tweets about Haiti and donations. Their results were striking; every 10% increase in tweets lead to an additional US $236,540 in contributions, and every ABC News story published about Haiti lead to an additional US $963,800 in contributions. In the same way, public sentiments on issues are undeniably linked to government action. For revolutions and political movement, in particular, this is crucial. After examining more than 5,000 protests with 50 million participants in the UK, Spain, Belgium, and other European countries, the University of North Carolina found that media attention was a necessary step for any protest to lead to policy change; increases in media coverage were clearly linked to increases in attention to an issue in Parliament.
Much of the progress online activism makes won’t be obvious, but it will be there. It won’t always be able to be quantified, but the awareness and knowledge that the information spreads has worth and real value. The discussions fostered, money raised, and action inspired prove this. The internet and our attempts use the internet for good may be flawed, but in the end, they provide a forum for change that otherwise never would have occurred. We cannot let the culture meant to undermine activism dampen that. We must not let that culture prevent the spread of our messages, we must only remember to act on them.
My classmates and I would go our separate ways after 5th grade, and, tragically, we did not keep in touch. But our belief in our ability to change anything and everything, to cause and effect, never went away. With a limitless access to knowledge and a fervent, resulting will to act, it had every reason to be true.