In a New Yorker article, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required.” Is Gladwell right? Can a tweet really start a revolution? In March 2012, a 30-minute documentary swept through cyberspace and created a wave of sensationalism so astounding it was dubbed the best viral video campaign of all time. The video received millions of views on YouTube and Facebook. The Kony 2012 Invisible Children campaign was seemingly the perfect piece of modern propaganda. It was a stylish film backed by celebrity activism, featuring the innocent faces of invisible children victimized by sweaty, evil-looking bad guys. However, the campaign failed to garner mass action and instead inspired a new term, “slacktivism,” the idea that sharing, liking or retweeting across the social web will solve a problem.
Like Gladwell, I believe that social media mobilizes participants by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. More people are likely to donate to a cause from the safety of cyberspace than attend an event or volunteer their time.
Social media is certainly reinventing activism. Events that may have remained localized have garnered national attention. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the discourse surrounding inequalities in civil justice became a part of the national narrative. The case gained the attention of the mainstream media and forced the nation to pay attention to an issue that civil rights leaders had been concerned with for years. Without social media, the story may have remained localized.
But for a movement to really work, it has to connect with what’s going on in the streets. Social media is designed to share information, but that’s only one aspect of activism. In order to create a sustainable movement, there must be on-the-ground organizing and people mobilizing in real space. The notion of slacktivism maintains that you can empower people through the click of a mouse. There must be several tools beyond the click of the button to get people to take the next step. In this increasingly digital age, we have to be told what to do next and how we should do it. Social media can indeed lead to activism, but there has to be a step-by-step process for it to accomplish a long-term goal.
Daaimah S. Etheridge is a program coordinator at the Drexel Radiological Department. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org