Armchair activism: helping or hurting social movements?

Hashtags like “#BringBackOurGirls”, “#IdleNoMore” and “#Kony2012″ have become part of the public vernacular. There is no questioning their reach in terms of how many people use them.

#BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted more than 3 million times, and an image of First Lady Michelle Obama holding a piece of paper with that hashtag written on it got more than 57,000 retweets. In April, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a school by Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Over 200 remain in captivity. Most of those that made it home returned on the first day.

Merlyna Lim, a Canada Research Chair in digital media and global networking and professor at Carelton University, says that’s because the hashtag drew the attention away from rescuing the girls.

“It was hurting the situation because the Nigerian government was busy with how it was [being] portrayed on social media, rather than trying to deal with the issues,” she said.

Social media activism is what Lim describes as a penetration of popular culture into politics.

“How people participate in American Idol is being translated into how people participate in politics,” she said. “I think social media activism that is without any activism beyond social media… I wouldn’t even call it activism. It is empty activism.”

Often with social media activism, sometimes called slacktivism, a lot of noise is made yet very little results are ever produced. Lim said this is largely due to the speed at which social media moves.

“Social media, especially Twitter, doesn’t really provide the infrastructure for something further and how to go to the next step.”

Many argue that these social media campaigns raise awareness. It’s helped certain movements like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gain momentum and rake in donations.

For these campaigns, where only individual action is required, social media is a great tool, says Lim.

But raising money is much simpler than carrying out social justice, which is incredibly complex and requires a deep understanding and deliberation.

In these more complex situations, like Aboriginal and ecological rights movement #IdleNoMore, awareness can be a step towards social justice but it is not necessarily actual social justice, said Lim.

She argues that without a core group behind the movement, it won’t go anywhere. In these instances, it creates an “illusion that people are involved in a conversation about social justice, but in reality, they are just having conversations that are not rooted in anything.”

The motives behind social media activism aren’t lost on her. She said people often donate or share the hashtag because they want to show others they care about issues and show they are a part of something.

In most successful movements, social media didn’t play as much of a factor as many armchair activists would think.

Most people only saw the results of the movement in Hong Kong that began in September. Lim says the nature of media is to make events appear immediate, when in fact people in Hong Kong had been staging similar protests every July 1 for years to demand a number of human rights and liberties from Beijing.

Just because we saw the D-Day, says Lim, doesn’t mean it was the only day of action. And without that background work, what Lim calls “enduring time and space”, it only creates an illusion of a popular movement, not something real and sustainable.

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