10 03 2012

The old fashioned way of social activism? photo credit: spotreporting

The current debate on the Kony 2012 viral video is really only the tip of the iceberg for social activism. Grass-roots causes, campaigns and groups have taken to social media in a big way. It would be interesting to know whether this has meant:

• More petitions
• Bigger petitions (ie: more names per petition)
• Any actual better outcomes for the causes involved. Do foreign dictators / big corporations / African warlords / NATO / US Government / whoever else is being petitioned actually care if there are millions of extra signatures? And if those signatures are from all over the world? Does that give the petition more or less value as a measure of public opinion?

I suspect the answer to the first two dot-points is yes. The third dot point is probably doubtful (IMHO).

And how has activism going online changed the way we behave in choosing what we do and do not support? For the individual…
• The effort to sign (or click) is minimal. Often the information provided with these campaigns is minimal, emotive – designed for our short socia-media attention spans. It is easy click without really thinking about it too much.
• The immediate result is often posted on our Facebook wall / Tweeted to the world so it makes up part of our public image
• The proliferation of online petitions online has meant that they are in our face (or on our wall) on a daily basis.
• Suddenly, instead of just seeing local petitions, we see petitions from all over the world – some about very small local issues about which we may know very little.
• While many of the petitions and other online activism messages come from reputable organisations, many come from previously unknown organisations. Just as my email is now full of spam and various cons, social media is a rich ground for the unscrupulous. It amazes me that people still fall for the Nigerian scam, but many of the more recent scams are much more sophisticated and difficult to detect. Particularly when forwarded by friends.

While many existing organisations have taken advantage of the social marketing opportunities presented by social media, other organisations have set up specifically to harvest this ready community – GetUp, Change.Org and other such groups are not cause-specific but rather present a wide range of causes, one after the other. If one cause attracts your attention and you sign your e-name – you are on their list for all the other petitions as well. It seems churlish to unsub when all of these causes are so worthy….but compassion-fatigue can come on very quickly when signing one petition leads you to another and another and another. And another.

And another. (I’ll stop now but you get the point.)

Social activism has always been a marketing exercise to attract attention and gain committment (and sometimes money) from the general public. Going online has given causes and groups many more tools to achieve this marketing outcome…but the backlash for the Kony 2012 campaign has been significant. In the last two days I have heard or read…

• Criticism of the oversimplification of the issues (which was probably required to create an impactful video)
• Hyper-vigiliance and criticism on any purported “facts”, irrespective of how central they are to the issue
• General backlash about whether this is a valid way to achieve any change.
• Questions about the organisation, Invisible Children, running the campaign,
• Is spending donation money on marketing a legitimate way of doing business for a charity (or should they be spending it on on-the-ground-services)?
• Is it what the people affected want
• Should we be minding our own business and not imposing our solutions on other people’s problems
• Is this the most important problem to focus on and what about all the other similar and maybe worse problems?

While some of this is certainly valid, it is a distraction from the actual issue in the video, and potentially an action-stopper for all social activism. Questions put to this organisation could be, and perhaps should be, put to every other organisation. As to whether this campaign can do anything beyond raising awareness – whether this will indeed translate into action on the part of any governments or agencies to do something about not just Kony but the entire LRA, remains to be seen.

So in an effort to try to find out what activism going online has meant for the social activism industry, I have created a brief online survey. It is a quick ten questions, anonymous and hopefully not obtrusive. Please click through and spend a couple of minutes telling me how online social activism has changed your activism – and forward the link

to your friends. (I am keen to get responses from people who do and don’t participate in these online activism campaigns.)





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