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Online Activism: Experiments in Democracy

With the click of button we can now fight poverty, condemn dictators, and occupy… (insert your home town here). Online activist organisation Getup! offers us the chance to support gay marriage and refugees and asylum seekers. CommunityRun even lets us devise our own campaigns. YouTube offers the perfect place for ideas to begin their viral journey. While Facebook provides a community of millions to reach out to.


As Peter Kelly from Deakin University has suggested, at a time when many young people don’t trust the traditional modes of democratic participation, online activism can offer young people a way of getting involved in issues that they care about.


Yet, amidst a generation hungry for change some have stopped to ask in the end, what does it all achieve? Skeptics have accused online activists of ‘slactivism’: activism with the feel good pay off, minus the effort. Does online activism lead to offline passivity? Should we feel good after we’ve clicked that support button? What are we really achieving online?


This is a complex debate often linked to the question of intervention. Take Kony 2012 for example – the YouTube video calling for support to end the Joseph Kony’s reign of terror in Uganda was watched by more than one million people. It is estimated that some 100 million watched the video which recently won a ‘Do Something’ award ( organise campaigns and encourage young people to get involved in social and political issues). Despite its popularity, Curtis and McCarthy for the Guardian say that the campaign has affected little has changed on the ground, and that military intervention soon to occur had been planned prior to the campaign.


Some have even warned that campaigns like Kony 2012 can do more harm than good. Max Fisher for the Atlantic said Kony 2012 treats ‘African people as cared for only to the extent that Westerners care, their problems solvable only to the extent that Westerners solve them…Worst of all, the much-circulated campaign subtly reinforces an idea that has been one of Africa’s biggest disasters: that well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix it’. The problem for Fisher is that this kind of intervention justifies privilege (we care because we can and should), while the practice of digital activism offers an easy way of offsetting feelings of guilt and political lethargy.


In the right hands online activism has the potential to be a vehicle for grass roots movement and widely supported social change. Its capacity as a tool for revolution has been proven. Taken up by young people across the Middle East, North Africa, America and Europe digital activism has enabled communication and acceleration of ideas and hopes for a different future.


The problem with online campaigns is that we are constantly faced with issues from around the world and the option of intervention – even if we know very little about the situation and what the consequences of our actions will be. Perhaps the question ‘does all this online activism really make a difference?’ should be reframed to provoke more critical engagement with the long standing dilemma of involvement. What do you want to achieve through online activism? What do you think you should achieve?


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