Clicking the Way to Social Change

A young Ugandan boy sits in the dark, describing the death of his brother, who tried to escape from a rebel group operating in that nation. The boy fears for his life, after watching his brother’s throat slit, and says he would prefer to be killed than be abducted by the rebel regime.

This was social media’s version of the “shot heard ‘round the world.” Invisible Children, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization, spread their Kony 2012 project and video across Facebook.

It outraged, upset, and shocked viewers, who “Liked” and shared the video at a rate never before seen. Within less than a week, the video had received over 80 million views.

The focus was Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group based in Uganda. It discussed Kony’s numerous human rights violations, especially focusing in on the LRA’s use of child soldiers. It ran with the tagline, “Make Kony famous,” a call to make the arrest and capture of Kony a priority of Western governments.

It showed images of the director’s son learning about Kony, and shows them in comparison with Jacob, the Ugandan boy who was terrorized by the leader. It sparked outrage in the hearts of those who watched it.

The video went viral. But, the reality is the movement ran much deeper than that.

As some users across the globe simply watched and spread the video, millions joined in on the sentiment of making Kony famous. University campuses across Canada and the United States set dates for public screenings of the film, while April 20 was declared a day of action for supporters promote the cause publicly in cities across North America.

It seemed a textbook example of clicktivism: the idea of taking social activism online. Kony revealed the ways individuals and organizations harness the power of social media to get increasingly apathetic young people involved in a social movement.

But, in the days and weeks that followed, criticisms of Kony 2012 became the real story. Suspicions of Invisible Children, the facts presented in the video, and co-founder and director Jason Russell quickly overshadowed the original message of the film.

At the forefront, along with the criticisms, was the debate around the actual, practical advantage in using Facebook and other social media platforms. Many media critics questioned how involved and engaged Facebook users who shared the video were. To some degree, the video became a farce.

For example, the Peak newspaper at Simon Fraser University ran a satirical piece that claimed anyone who shared the video on Facebook would receive an honorary degree from the school’s International Studies faculty.

Meanwhile, users of the popular social news site reddit posted maps of Africa, and asked Kony supporters to point out the location of Uganda.

The anti-Kony campaign ignited a debate about the role clicktivism plays in engaging young people in social change: is it activism, or simply slacktivism?

The Kony movement is not unique or a pioneer in using social media to create widespread awareness of a social or political issue.

Over the past half-decade, there have been countless protest or awareness groups using social media as a tool for communication. For example, Both the Arab Spring and Occupy movements were largely organized through social media efforts.

The power of social media is not limited to large movements, either. Smaller, grassroots organizations and movements use sites such as Facebook to find members abroad that they would not have access to otherwise, and spread their ideas and messages on a wider and more accessible level than any traditional platform allows.

Greg Hughes, a 34-year-old online content editor from Toronto, used social media to organize a group in protest of a political issue close to his heart.

Hughes started a Facebook group called, “Stop Bill C-11: Fight Harper’s Proposed Copyright Act.” The group has grown to garner over 4,000 “Likes,” and become one of the highest followed groups on Facebook dedicated to the bill.

Far from a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing “hacktivist” like those in Anonymous, Hughes is but an average Joe who saw what was going on with Bill C-11 and felt that creating a group would create some discussion around the issues involved.

Showing how ego plays a role in social media, he says that he was “lucky” to spot it so quick and establish one of the first groups up on the bill.

Hughes said that he had heard about the copyright bill coming for sometime, and was fearful that with the majority government the bill would be brought to fruition. As someone who works with the web, Hughes feared the bill would be damaging to a free and open Internet, and disliked the impact it would have on Canadian consumers. He decided to make the group as a political statement, he said.

He spoke about the successes of Facebook as a means to help create discussion about the issues surrounding Bill C-11.

“One of the beauties to Facebook is that almost everyone uses it, and it’s almost become an online phone book,” Hughes said. “So when you have a unified cause that someone really cares about, people will search that out. They’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m opposed to Bill C-11, I want to read more about it, I want to be a part of this community, so I’m going to type in Bill C-11 and search.’”

Another large benefit to using Facebook is it tends to have a snowball effect, says Hughes.

“I think one of the benefits of Facebook is that it has that multiplier effect, it’s like exponential growth. When people start seeing that there’s, say, a thousand people who have signed up or Liked a page, they are more inclined to go to one that has a lot of people at it, because it’s more popular and there’s the sense there’s more interest, more engagement in that particular page.”

And in this idea of engagement lies how social media and social news sites act to help reinvigorate democracy from below, and help interest young people in the political issues that surround them.

Alan Sears is a sociology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a former winner of the Presidents Award, who writes academically on democracy from below and collective action. Sears also writes extensively on these topics as well as others focusing on employment, government austerity, and charter rights abuses for the New Socialist, a webzine for Canadian socialists.

A stark believer in the idea behind democracy from below, Sears says social media can unite citizens and create a shift in power back to the people.

At its heart, democracy from below states democracy is not official, top-down mandates from the government, but instead the collective ideas of the people that make up a society. It believes the people should dictate the agenda, the issues, and the policies of a state. In short, democracy from below argues decisions should come from the bottom, the people, to the top, the government.

With short, curly white hair and round-rimmed glasses, Sears looks nothing like the dirty, hippy, rebellious protestors the media often shows when covering Occupy.

But, opposed to the austerity agendas of both the political and corporate leaders, as well as flaws in the official democratic process, Sears has been an active member in the movement. While he says he doesn’t use social media much for his involvement, he has seen the benefits on the physical side.

For Sears, social media and social news sites benefit society through the process of communication and building community.

With Occupy Toronto, there are numerous groups that focus on particular ideas. For example, one is dedicated solely to organizing physical protests, another to people who wish to bring goods to those camping out, and one dedicated just as a discussion board.

“I mean, to me, [social media sites] play a really important role. Sometimes people exaggerate it, but the first thing I want to say is they allow people to communicate in remarkable ways, and allow networks to form in really important ways,” Sears said. “And I think a lot of people are finding this ability to connect up and listen to one another and hear things and engage, is extremely valuable. So communication is a really important part of democracy, building community, listening to one another, can really benefit.”

At the same time, Sears argues clicktivism can only go so far without using traditional forms of activism and protest.

“At the same time, I think we can network with one another until the cows come home, and the people in power won’t really be afraid,” Sears said. “So the challenge lies in how to use that to build something that goes beyond social media that goes into the streets, that goes into however people choose to exercise collective power. It’s part of the process, but sometimes I think people confuse it for the entire process.”

“I think the challenge is that it can be pretty easy to get a big crowd of people to say, ‘Yes I will do something’, and its easy for me from my desk to click that I will be somewhere, so I think the challenge is to get people out from behind their desk. Because real democracy relies on people getting out and doing things with their bodies. So I think it can contribute, but sometimes people mistake it for the actual change.

Supporters of the new clicktivist activism agree with Sears to some degree, but are quick to point to the SOPA and PIPA protests in the United States as an example of pure online activism succeeding.

SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA is the Protect IP Act, both American bills seeking to bring stricter copyright laws to the United States.

Hughes acknowledges the January 18 blackout of many popular American websites as an example of strictly online protest creating change in political legislation.

“There have been a couple instances [of successful clicktivism] actually. With SOPA and PIPA in the States, the opposition really grew because the Internet protested. Numerous sites had that day of action because they basically blacked themselves out. Wikipedia, Boing Boing, reddit, The Oatmeal, and a bunch of others, they all basically went dark for a day. And hundreds of thousands of people began contacting their congressional members, because of that, and SOPA and PIPA were basically taken off the table.”

That day of protest was a joint effort among thousands of websites, both large and small, which voluntarily went offline for the day in protest of SOPA and PIPA.

Other important players in the protest were Google, Wired, and Mozilla, leading to millions of Internet users without their favourite websites for the day.

Many of the sites replaced their home pages with facts about the bills to garner support and encouraged citizens to write to politicians and protest the bills.

There is no exact number on how many letters were sent to politicians, but Google reported about 4.5 million Americans signed online petitions in protest of the bills, which were to be read in Congress the following week. Following the day of action, both bills were postponed until “there is wider agreement on a solution,” said Republican Lamar Smith in a statement the following day.

Nate Prosser argues without social media and social news sites, the organization necessary for that protest would not have been possible.

After years of working with non-government organizations and Greenpeace to help establish their online presence, Prosser moved to Vancouver and went on to co-found Clicktivist.org, a watchdog site that reports on successes and failures of online activism.

“The amount of organizing you would need to affect that type of protest on a national level without having the benefits of reddit, and Facebook and Twitter would just be ridiculous,” Prosser said. “You would never be able to achieve that in such a short span.”

Prosser conceded that Sears’ critique of needing a physical presence was correct, but clicktivism is a tool that complements the offline protests.

“When people talk about using social media for protest, like the Arab Spring or the Green Revolution in Iran, those would never happen strictly online. But you also can’t ignore that there was a very strong online portion in the organization and raising awareness about those movements,” said Prosser. “So you can’t ignore the physical, you can’t just assume all activism is going to be done behind a keyboard, but it’s a bit crying wolf for some of the people who claim that clicktivism is the downfall of political activism.”

While social media and social news sites have the opportunity to act as a tool to complement physical action, it does have a serious and prominent downfall to the democratic process.

That downfall, say Sears and Hughes, is the lack of real opportunity for exchange between dissenting views and opinions when people “Like” groups or pages. Users often only associate themselves with others who have the same viewpoints, meaning the important democratic principle of discussion and deliberation does not happen.

Hughes argues because these activist groups, blogs, or websites are often politically aligned or slanted, social media can polarize users on certain issues.

“One real problem that you’ve got with social media and a lot of the Internet, be it blogs or political blogs, is this phenomena called egocasting, which becomes an issue because it polarizes people,” Hughes explains. “People are more likely to seek out things that they agree with on the Internet. That’s a real problem, because a lot of the sites you see, the most popular ones tend to be rather ideologically centred around a particular slant or perspective. You see that with the right-wing blogosphere, the left-wing blogosphere and on Facebook, there is a tendency to polarize people. It doesn’t allow for people to have a real debate, especially if you connect certain political views to a particular site.”

Sears highlights the issue with how various viewpoints are discussed online. One of the major problems he has come across is how dismissive people can be online.

“The problem with written distance form is that people aren’t very good listeners online,” Sears said. “So you have ways for people to interact with one another but people are quite dismissive, you can’t see body language or see if people are joking. I think there’s nothing wrong with the idea of getting info from places that often confirm our own views, but sometimes online isn’t the best place to flesh out ideas that we don’t disagree with.”

While regular citizens who use Facebook may find difficulty in sharing various viewpoints and discussing and debating issues online, politicians themselves have found social media to be an unprecedented tool in setting the issues that matter to them.

One such politician is Marc Laferriere, the New Democrat Party candidate for the Brant riding in the 2011 federal election.

Laferriere, a social worker by day, is among the younger generation of politicians at just age 31, and used social media in ways his older colleagues were simply unable to.

In fact, his use of social media was so thorough, Laferriere received recognition from Marshall Ganz, the campaign strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama, and was ranked the most engaged politician on Twitter during the election by politwitter.ca, a watchdog Twitter site.

Things weren’t always that way for Laferriere. Never really understanding or using Twitter, Laferriere shied away from the site until he was forced to teach himself the ways it could be used when asked to speak at an event called Tweetstock.

Today, the friendly Laferriere is unlikely to be seen without an iPad under his arm, using the skills he taught himself in his political quest.

One of the major benefits, according to Laferriere, was the accessibility it provided him to voters.

“In a smaller riding or a smaller constituency, the development model makes more sense now because they can access you through knowing where you’re going to be, and it can compliment or help you bypass a media filter,” Laferriere said. “I’m amazed, because I see people who come up and say, ‘It’s like I wake up with you, because I wake up and read two or three of your Tweets.’”

More than anything, Laferriere acknowledges that using social media during a campaign is a benefit in getting younger voters involved, which allowed him to use that tactic well in the previous election.

Younger voters are more active on Facebook, and are more likely to respond to a politician posting a question on their page, rather than taking the time to speak with a politician campaigning door-to-door, he said.

Furthermore, Laferriere argues that social media is transforming traditional election strategies to new, online strategies.

“All the traditional stuff, I mean you have the cheesy button, but what are the twibes, I use them, and they’re seeing the same thing,” he said. “You’re seeing that transformation from traditional marketing and traditional media and traditional outreach into social media.”

Andrew Macklin, campaign manager for Michael St. Amant, a provincial candidate for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, agreed with Laferriere’s points, stating that social media acts as the new form of door-to-door campaigning.

“You have to tell people really one major thing during a campaign, which is, ‘where are you.’ I think that’s the big thing that social media allows candidates to answer. You tell people where you are, so that they have the opportunity to come to you. In this riding, you are looking at 52,000 houses, and you are not going to get to all of them in a five-week campaign. So what social media has done is said that a candidate might not get to your neighbourhood, but gives the politician an opportunity to allow voters to come to them.”

Macklin also argues that social media allows politicians to push issues the traditional media ignores.

“Because of the coverage traditional media pick, because they pick four issues for the election, what happens to the other 35 issues we want to prioritize?” Macklin said. “We can’t get it covered in traditional media, we can’t make it to 52,000 doors, but we now have social media to promote the issues we deem most important.”

However, it is not without some negatives. Laferriere says he has found himself in the middle of Twitter wars, where some people act for the sole purpose of stirring the pot. At these times, he says, it can be frustrating because other readers don’t get the context or get to see if it’s true.

Macklin, who is quick to speak his mind and tell it how it is, dismisses the ideas that a media bypass is a bad thing, and argues the same media system still exists online.

“The first followers of a politician online are always journalists, and they are quick to verify anything that may be said on Twitter or Facebook,” Macklin said. “The same checks and balance exist, but now the news comes to them.”

That is a sentiment that also rings true for those at the grassroots level. As Prosser acknowledges, many of the issues with an online activist following do not receive much coverage from traditional media.

One example of this is the Occupy movement, which didn’t receive coverage of its original New York protests until weeks into the movement. The same was the case with SOPA, which didn’t receive coverage until the websites went dark.

“Lots of these issues still don’t necessarily play particularly well in mainstream media, like for instance SOPA, the only real significant coverage was on the actual day when Wikipedia and everyone actually went dark,” Proser said. “But with the benefit of social media, reddit, and blogs, you don’t actually need the BBC, or CNN, to get the message out across to the public. It helps, but you don’t need it to get your message out.”

As movements like Kony 2012, Occupy and the SOPA protests have shown, social media can play an important role in the spreading and organization of information.

The question of its role as a player in promoting social activism and reengaging young people with the political and democratic process is one that appears ripe to continue evolving at much the same pace as technology does.

Think back to Jacob, the young Ugandan boy terrorized by Joseph Kony. Without social media, his story may never have been heard. Without social media, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia may never have gotten off the ground.

Without social media, the world may be a very different, very darker place.

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