This week’s exploration of the rise of ‘hacktivism’ and ‘clicktivism’ gave me a lot to think about. While I agree that the Arab Spring was helped by the online social media tools, like Twitter and Facebook, I find myself on the side of Gladwell and Morozov – not to be a traitor to my generation or anything. But, activism, protests and unrest are not new and for our history, have come together in a largely grassroots way, aided by the technological tools at the time. Those have ranged from face-to-face meetings, telegraph, pigeons, letters, emails, and now, Twitter and Facebook. I know – social media tools today have the opportunity to reach more people faster, galvanizing the ‘troops’ in lightning speeds. Take Kony 2012 (remember that?) – ‘slacktivism’ in my mind – which was the fastest growing viral video of all time. 100 million views in 6 days. Messenger pigeons never did that. And that campaign did have results: Invisible Children reports that in the year following the video, they had 67% fewer civilian killings by the LRA. That is something to be acknowledged.
My issue is not with the idea that activism today is bigger – but rather, that is not necessarily better (which is often the tone that is struck by media reporting and conversations). Further, activists and protesters in the past did their work often with their faces showing, where their courage in stepping out in public with their beliefs could have led to their injury or death, or isolation by their peers. To be sure, hacktivists are at risk of the law as well, but Anonymous seems to be doing pretty well at avoiding getting caught (might be easier when you are online behind firewalls and computer screens).
It got me to thinking about our own early activists, like Laura Secord, who walked 20 miles out of American-occupied territory to warn the British that an attack was coming in the War of 1812. Just because it’s one person alone doesn’t make it less important or impactful. Or the Famous Five, who quietly worked to ensure that women were considered persons under the eyes of the law in Canada (only 85 years ago), where five women asked the question whether a woman could be a senator. Or the Underground Railroad, which consisted of secret meetings, independent groups moving north with the help of ‘conductors’ (free blacks) to tell them the next step in their path.
Our world has long had this history of activism ad been novel in how we have achieved our goals. Whether through secrets, or board daylight, movements and protests and speeches and letters mailed to the government, the humans behind the issue are the real reason a change happens. Even in our current uses of Twitter and Facebook, we need the person behind the phone to be willing to step forward and brave the possibility of death or isolation.
Do you think it’s easier to be an activist now, with the anonymity possible online? It’s something to chew on.