Is Digital Activism an Effective Medium for Change?

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Is Digital Activism an Effective Medium for Change?

Malcolm Gladwell says social media can't effect real-life change, Facebook and Twitter devotees think otherwise.

by
Jaz Cummins

Malcolm Gladwell has stirred up a hornets' nest with his claim that digital media can't have the same impact on activism as real relationships. Photograph: Brooke Williams

"The revolution will not be tweeted"
read the provocative standfirst on a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the
New Yorker last week, questioning the value of Twitter and Facebook as a
tool for effecting real change.

In the article, Gladwell questioned claims that social media had galvanised recent protests in Iran and Moldova and argued that this kind of armchair activism can't change the world.
Referencing the American civil rights movement, Gladwell said activism
was tied to relationships and shared experiences – a person is more
likely to protest if they know a friend will be by their side – rather
than the number of people joining a Facebook campaign.

Gladwell's comments are not wholly new. Activists and NGOs have been debating whether "clicktivism" is ruining leftist activism for some time.

So what are your thoughts? Would the Make Poverty History
campaign in 2005, for example, have galvanised so many people to march
around Edinburgh if it had been conducted by Twitter? Is digital
engagement the future of activism, and what can supposedly short
digital-attention spans offer to the slow, complex process of
development?

We've rounded up a few comments in the blogosphere to start you off.

Sarah Ditum
writes of the value in social media. "Yes, social media gives a lot
more people the opportunity to be telescopic philanthropists, sitting at
our desks plugging our email addresses into petition forms. But that's
purely a function of campaigns being able to reach a lot of people – and
useless as these pixel-level gestures may be at bringing about the
object they're supposedly aimed at, they do at least demonstrate and
encourage a movement of attitudes leading to long-term change."

Lina Srivastava,
meanwhile, believes that, by arguing the merits of Twitter activism,
"we're all now starting to miss the point. The way a campaign engages
empathisers, influencers and activists - whether based on what Gladwell
notes as weak or strong ties - is really more a matter of strategy:
issue identification, context, methodology, desired action, outcome,
etc. The medium is not the message here."

Alex Madrigal
adds: "I think we can read Gladwell's piece as a fairly specific
indictment of the current uses of the current generation of tools. Truth
is, very few major activism projects succeed through Facebook or
Twitter. Shirky would totally agree with that, I think. And in cases
where they seem to have helped, it's quite difficult to quantify how
much, if at all."

Juliette at Greenpeace UK
writes: "Weak ties can become stronger. I first got involved with
Greenpeace reading a blog entry in passing. Then I wrote a comment. Then
I joined an online forum, and became a volunteer in a local group,
collecting signatures in the street, and convincing people in the street
to give us the five euro cents that were left in their wallets. I
became an online volunteer for Greenpeace International, then got an
internship, and then got a job. I consider myself extremely lucky to be
able to work for good like I do every day. And I don't forget that what
hooked me in all this is a simple blog entry, five years ago."

Luke Allnut
adds that our preoccupation with "overthrowing governments and regime
change" risks "overlooking the incremental benefits that digital
activism can bring every day. (A hazing video in Armenia goes viral and
leads to an officer's conviction. A Russian blogger's harrowing account
of the state of a regional hospital trickles up into state-run media.) No, it's not regime change, but it's undoubtedly making a difference".

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