More Than Likes and Bytes: Online Activism

The perceived apathy of participants in today's technology-driven social campaigns has given birth to derisive terms such as slacktivism and clicktivism. The ubiquity of these terms is glossing over the rather pivotal role that technology can play in proliferating social causes. We chat with Halabol about technology and activism.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 07.03.13

The perceived apathy of participants in today’s technology-driven social campaigns has given birth to derisive terms such as slacktivism and clicktivism. The ubiquity of these terms is glossing over the rather pivotal role that technology can play in proliferating social causes. We chat with Halabol about technology and activism.

Recently, a slew of photos made the rounds on Facebook. The photos depicted horrifying scenes, such as an infant with one leg lying on a hospital bed with bandages wrapped around its waist and groin, framed by a series of hands with thumb raised and captioned with the line “Liking isn’t helping”.

Created by a Singapore ad agency for the volunteer-run organisation Crisis Relief Singapore, the ads play on the idea that “liking” something on Facebook means diddly squat to people living in crisis situations and, as an extension, it is not as effective as say volunteering or donating money or goods.

In the case of disaster situations, it’s hard, if not impossible to argue against this point. In such cases, immediate action (in the form of voluntary help and provision of supplies) is required while (allow us to paint with an extremely broad brush here) media coverage of certain large-scale disaster or crisis situations would also help bridge some knowledge gaps leading many to argue that a few extra likes on Facebook would be futile.

But for the countless number of causes and issues that are swept under the rug or don’t have the immediate jarring effect of a disaster or crisis situation, technology and online campaigning represents a vital lifeline to help spread awareness of a cause and build a supporter base.

Technology as a Tool for Social Good

“Technology is an indispensable part of everyone’s life. India is the third largest country in the world using the internet, and more than half of these online users are on social media. Nothing could be smarter than leveraging this space to spread a good word for society“ Ankur Gupta, Founder and CEO of online social changemakers Halabol states.

“The best advantage of technology is the tremendous pace at which it works and the measurable results that can be obtained. Moreover, Halabol believes in meaningful activism and the only intent is to bring change on your own, not asking others to do so. A candle march is good but not [going to bring] change [alone]. That’s why we use technology to allow everyone to share, care and deliver.”

Despite its potential as an engagement tool, technology-based activism has its detractors and they came out in force just over a year ago when social media lit up with Invisible Children’s video about the crimes committed by Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony (Al Jazeera has a detailed breakdown of reactions to Kony 2012, which you can read about here)

This so-called passivity and ability for social messages to get lost on social media was part of the reason that Mr Gupta created a dedicated platform for social change in early 2012.

“There is no aggregated platform for social activity that one could attach themselves to and be informed about social issues, people associated with them and NGOs endorsing them” Mr Gupta laments.

“There is a big void in the social activism networking space. People use social media channels to connect for social causes, but it diluted the essence of the problems. This resulted in the creation of Halabol, an online platform for social activism and social change.”

Collaborating on the Streets…and Online

Viewing social media and technology as the silver bullet solution for triggering proactive engagement from the masses is at best cavalier and at worst far too narrow-sighted. Viewing it as a catalyst for connecting activists with non-actvists, building awareness and coupling it with an effective offline strategy can yield effective results. Contrary to what proponents of the “slacktivist” argument believe, online social activism generally doesn’t affect the likelihood of an already-engaged person getting involved in offline activism. According to a 2010 survey conducted in the US by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Worldwide, people who engage in promotional social activism online (i.e. clicking Like):

  • As likely as non-social media promoters to donate
  • Twice as likely to volunteer their time
  • Twice as likely to take part in events like charity walks
  • More than twice as likely to buy products or services from companies that supported the cause
  • Three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of their cause
  • More than four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact political representatives

Ankur Gupta echoes this online/offline dichotomy when discussing some of the successful campaigns run via Halabol’s platform. “Our biggest achievement came when we met Sonali Mukherjee, an acid attack victim who was 90 percent burnt. Halabol connected her to crowd sourcing, bought her case to the government in India through a petition and is  still working with her to address this heinous crime and initiate a movement within. In addition, each and every social cause is given equal concern at Halabol, after all we believe in collective action!”

Used strategically and effectively alongside offline action, technology and the web undoubtedly occupies a key spot in the activist’s tool kit partially due to its excellent abilities to connect and mobilise people. “Online activism portals, like Halabol, play a very important role in connecting…individuals, social bodies and businesses to streamline their approach and play on the target not around it!” Mr Gupta says.

Founder of Meta-Activism and former New Media Operations Manager for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, Mary Joyce, outlines six key areas where technology and online activism can have the most impact:

  • share public opinion
  • plan an action
  • protect activists
  • share a call to action
  • take action digitally
  • transfer resources

So where to from here with online activism? More and more opportunites crop up the more connected the world becomes. “Sensitising people through this universal and ultimate resource will lead to a great outcome, better connectivity and superb information sharing platforms“ Mr Gupta states „Mass sensitization is as important as individual motivation and realisation, technology is the only source of light we can look from this dark tunnel”.

Looking to get involved in social or environmental campaigns? Halabol has oodles of information about campaigns to get take part in while and Avaaz are also good starting points to get engaged.

Author: Anna Rees/ RESET editorial

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