Don’t Click the Guilt Away – How Online Activism Has Sedated Rather Than Empowered Us

Originally posted as part of Distilled Magazine’s Issue #4

“Everyone’s bad. There’s noth­ing we can do. Let’s just stay at home and have tea.” That was the sen­ti­ment expressed in Adam Cur­tis’ 2009 short film The Rise of Oh-Dearism. In it, he chron­i­cled how he believed the West­ern pub­lic had become over­whelmed with images of poverty and despair across their bor­ders since the Biafran cri­sis, cul­mi­nat­ing in a sense of dread and apa­thy in which every new NGO cam­paign or news report about far-away tragedy trig­gered a reac­tion of “Oh Dear… well let’s just stay at home and have tea”.

“Never fear!” we cried with the advent of the inter­net. Knowl­edge is power, is it not? With a uni­verse of infor­ma­tion now at our fin­ger­tips, we would escape such apa­thy, open the doors to online activism and embrace an Era of New Pos­si­bil­i­ties! Unfor­tu­nately, the rift between the pos­si­bil­i­ties and the real­ity of online activism is enor­mous. Rather than open the por­tals of cross-global com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ignite the fires of out­rage at ris­ing inequal­ity and per­sis­tent pre­ventable poverty and death, it has given this gen­er­a­tion an easy cop-out. With one sim­ple click of a mouse, you can now ‘like’ or ‘share’ infor­ma­tion from advo­cacy groups and NGOs and wipe our con­science clean. What had the pos­si­bil­ity of becom­ing a means, has grounded to a halt, becom­ing an end.

Case and point was the now infa­mous viral video Kony2012 by the orga­ni­za­tion Invis­i­ble Chil­dren. On one day alone, forty-two of my Face­book friends had posted the video to their walls. It would go on to exceed 1 mil­lion views on YouTube. Now this piece is not going to be an analy­sis of the neo-colonial under­tones of the video (advo­cat­ing for a white Amer­i­can sav­iour to embark on an epic jour­ney to the dark heart of Africa return­ing with war­lord Joseph Kony’s head on a stake) because that horse has been blud­geoned to death. What it is, how­ever, is a reflec­tion on what the inter­net has done for this generation’s sense of activism. Let’s ask the ques­tion why when see­ing dis­as­ter unfold before our eyes, all we can do is ‘like’ and ‘share’, and then we’re content.

Tinted Win­dows

When Michael Pol­lan coined the con­cept of the glass abat­toir, he could hardly have expected what glass screens have done to West­ern soci­ety. He imag­ined that if we took those areas in which the hor­rors of the world were being per­pe­trated, and cased them in glass, things would change. We would look in, be appalled at what was unfold­ing before our eyes and sub­se­quently be com­pelled to act against them. Pol­lan thought mak­ing us eye-witness to dis­as­ter would prompt shock, out­rage, and most impor­tantly, action. These hopes were iden­ti­cal to the pos­si­bil­i­ties that the inter­net offered. Peo­ple on one side of the globe would now be directly con­fronted with the suf­fer­ing of those at the other end, with a sim­ple click.

The real­ity has been the oppo­site. All the world is a glass cage, and we can watch the less for­tu­nate from the com­fort of our cushy homes. We mar­vel at the spec­ta­cle and rejoice in our priv­i­lege, rather than tak­ing actual action. Now, this gen­er­a­tion is not lazy. It is not apa­thetic. It is not the ‘Me Gen­er­a­tion’ that oth­ers make it out to be. It sim­ply would not recog­nise gen­uine activism if it pepper-sprayed us in the eyes. It is not that we do not want to act, it is that we think we already are. Online activism has slipped into click­tivism, allow­ing us to feel that shar­ing a video equals tak­ing to the streets.

Show us how much you care

Infor­ma­tion is meant to empower. Yet, the inter­net has brought on such a smor­gas­bord of infor­ma­tion, that it seems to have sedated us, lulled us into a false sense of accept­ing the sta­tus quo. Although it offers the amaz­ing pos­si­bil­ity of con­nect­ing to those a hemi­sphere away, we have failed to use it for that. Instead we seem to be reblog­ging gifs of babies lick­ing lemons and pho­to­shop­ping a danc­ing Bey­oncé into the she-Hulk.

So where did it all go wrong? And why is the real­ity of our internet-usage so dis­heart­en­ing? Zuckerman’s ’cute cat the­ory of inter­net activism‘ would have us believ­ing that plat­forms such as Tum­blr, Twit­ter, Face­book and Insta­gram could eas­ily be con­verted to active spaces of mean­ing­ful activism as well as being used to share images of cute cats. It would seem, how­ever, that these plat­forms have made inter­net activism too easy. We have become con­vinced that buy­ing a (RED) iPod or shar­ing the image of an African child-soldier is equal to directly improv­ing the lives of oth­ers. This story has become all about the ‘self’ and not about the dis­tant ‘other’. Our human­i­tar­i­an­ism is no longer about a shared human­ity, but about a con­structed pub­lic persona.

The dan­ger of the highly pub­lic ‘glass’ soci­ety that we live in is that not only can we wit­ness the lives of oth­ers, they can also look right back. This has set in motion an indi­vid­u­al­is­ing trend. Our online lives are open for all to see, and that brings pres­sure along with it. Because you would not want to be the one friend that did not share that video of beau­ti­ful spo­ken word poetry against xeno­pho­bia, would you?

The com­bi­na­tion of social net­work­ing with sites like UpWor­thy have welded a double-edged sword of aware­ness and self-importance. By call­ing upon view­ers to share their videos, which are by turns heart­break­ing, hilar­i­ous and inspir­ing, it has mas­tered the art of the ‘cute cat the­ory’. Show me a video of a young African Amer­i­can boy speak­ing up against racism or a rap­per stand­ing up for same-sex mar­riage equal­ity and you have piqued my inter­ests and pos­si­bly broad­ened my mind on cer­tain top­ics. What you’ve also done is preach to the choir. Lik­ing and shar­ing cer­tain causes fos­ters a self-congratulatory online com­mu­nity, rather than one that is open to debate.

On the other hand, the inter­net also allows for imme­di­ate, and some­times anony­mous, response. Rather than feed­ing peace­ful, civil and informed dis­course, this fre­quently descends into mud-flinging, name-calling and trolling. Thus, click­tivism takes on two forms – preach­ing to the choir or anchor­ing down. Either you share the video that all your friends have shared for fear of being the odd one out, or you pre­pare to bat­tle it out in the com­ments sec­tion, prefer­ably by pour­ing cement into your own boots. Ideas need com­mu­ni­ties to flour­ish, and these con­stant bat­tles have caused our sense of com­mu­nity to crumble.

Shat­ter­ing the Pane

Now, open­ing that win­dow has not been dis­as­trous on all fronts. Sites like Kiva, Avaaz and Kick­starter (crit­i­cism of their sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to abuse aside) have made it pos­si­ble for projects to reach an audi­ence and receive fund­ing quickly and effi­ciently. When used prop­erly, the inter­net allows you to be parted with your money far eas­ier than when some­one rings your door­bell or stops you in the street. Thus now we are fools eas­ily parted from our money: to good causes, but fools nonetheless.

Such sites may be cir­cum­vent­ing the usual pot­holes of bureau­cracy, cor­rup­tion and issues of trans­parency, but they are per­pet­u­ated rather than chang­ing how the West views the Global South. Know­ing that your $5 will con­tribute to set­ting up a social entre­pre­neur­ship for mar­gin­alised women in Dji­bouti may soothe your con­science and improve their stan­dard of liv­ing, but it is a drop in the ocean. As long as the inter­net is not used to stim­u­late thought about why exactly those women in Dji­bouti have a sub-par stan­dard of liv­ing in the first place, the prob­lem remains, the dis­course unchanged and the global inequal­ity unwavering.

If any­thing, online activism has become the end, rather than the means, for those grow­ing up with the inter­net. Future rev­o­lu­tions will not be tele­vised by the West. They will be tweeted, and that’s all they will be. As long as our expe­ri­ence of unfair­ness is medi­ated by screens, our soci­ety may be con­structed by panes of glass, but that glass also pro­vides us with safety. Know­ing that you will never have to actu­ally expe­ri­ence what is hap­pen­ing to oth­ers is the biggest obsta­cle to online activism.

The cur­rent real­ity of online activism does not have to be per­ma­nent. The realm of pos­si­bil­i­ties that the inter­net has to offer remains vast; all it has to do is call for offline action. We have to come to terms with the con­text of the videos we see and the processes that lead to the suf­fer­ing we “share” before change will be brought about. The time has come for us to put our lofty words into prac­tice and trans­late our online actions into offline change . We must bury the arm­chairs of our smug, shal­low human­i­tar­i­an­ism and cease using the inter­net as a self-obsessed pat on our own backs. Away from the screens and into the light is where the real change will take place.