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Does online activism work, or does it just make us feel better about ourselves?

The internet has made it easier than ever before to throw our weight behind a cause. But does online activism actually make a difference?
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From online petitions to Twitter hashtags, the internet has made it easier than ever for us to throw our weight behind a cause. But does online activism actually effect change, or is it merely a quick fix, a way for us to feel less guilty with minimal effort?

Is the internet breeding a generation of ‘slacktivists’?

A recent joint study by The University of California, The University of North Carolina and The London School of Economics attempted to measure the correlation between the number people who supported a cause online and the number of people who took an active role in helping. They used the ‘Save Darfur’ Facebook campaign which, at the height of its popularity had 1.2 million members. The study was pretty damning in its evaluation of online activism. It found that ‘the vast majority of Cause members recruited no one else into the Cause and contributed no money to it.’ It concludes that ‘Facebook conjured an illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.’ For most users, clicking ‘like’ on the Save Darfur page felt like ‘doing their bit’, and allowed them to continue their lives without feeling guilty, despite having done nothing to actually help the people of Sudan.

 

The rise of the online petition

The most pervasive form of online activism is the online petition. In recent years, a number of websites dedicated solely to this form of activism have appeared. Signing a petition has always been a fairly low-effort form of protest but, in the old days, it at least meant putting pen to paper. Now a petition can be signed at the click of a button on a website that stores your information. Sites like Change.org and 38 Degrees turn petitions into a form of social media as petition creators and signatories can share them amongst friends and attempt to create viral petitions.

The power of the online petition is not to be underestimated. Since its launch in 2011 Change.org has racked up a number of significant victories. In 2014, over a million people signed the ‘Save Meriam’ petition, calling for the release of a Sudanese mother sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. The petition gained huge media attention and world leaders began to put pressure on the Sudanese government. In July 2014, Meriam Ibrahim was released. In 2013, the Bank of England committed to putting Jane Austen on the new £10 note after a Change.org petition highlighted the lack of women on banknotes. Speaking to The Huffington Post, Brie Rogers Lowery, UK director of the website, says that the internet now plays a pivotal role in activism, especially in the UK:

‘The internet is increasingly the first place citizens turn when they want to hold power to account.’  

The problem with online petition sites is that they are open to anyone promoting any cause. For every serious petition that makes a genuine difference, there is a frivolous petition complaining about the casting of a female Doctor Who or trying to ban the word ‘moist.; These petitions often gain just as much attention as their serious counterparts, undermining the reputation of the online petition as a vehicle for meaningful social change. Another problem is that any successful petition on a controversial topic will inevitably spawn an equally successful counter-petition, making it impossible to gauge the true public mood. Rival petitions calling for the BBC to both sack and reinstate Jeremy Clarkson in 2015 are a good example of this.

Going beyond the internet

The internet has allowed us to raise awareness of social and political issues like never before. This is a good starting point for enacting change, but awareness alone does not get the job done. There is nothing wrong with liking a charity’s Facebook page or signing an online petition, but we mustn’t allow such activities to fool us into thinking that we’ve done our bit. If we truly care about a cause we need to go one step further. Whether you donate money or march in the streets, fighting for a better world sometimes takes more than a click.

 

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