1. the practice of supporting a political or social cause via the Internet by means such as social media or online petitions, typically characterized as involving little effort or commitment.
On a raw February night in 2012, 17-year old African American, Trayvon Martin was walking through his gated community in Sanford, Florida when he was shot and killed by neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something” Zimmerman can be heard saying on a call to the police about Martin who was returning home with skittles and an iced tea he had bought from his local 7-11 that night, “these assholes, they always get away.”
Zimmerman hung up on the police. He followed Martin and shot him within 65 metres of his backdoor. On trial, he was acquitted of Martin’s murder, having successfully argued self-defence. Frustrated at the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal, Alicia Garza took to Facebook, penning what she called a “love letter” to her people: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter” she wrote, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors shared the post on her own wall with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The two women reached out to a third activist Opal Tometi and the three of them began setting up Tumblr and Twitter accounts under the slogan. This was the humble beginnings of what is today an internationally known civil rights movement.
August 2014 saw black teenager Mike Brown shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s body was left on the hot August footpath for four and a half hours. When he died, he was two days away from starting college. This was a tipping point for Americans. Those who hadn’t been paying attention were suddenly jolted awake. #BlackLivesMatter soared to popularity on almost every social media platform. The weeks that followed saw the city of Ferguson gripped by BLM protests and riots as the African American community there reacted in confusion, frustration and pain. Police incompetence and blatant racism repeatedly came to the fore in the years to follow. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark and Breonna Taylor are just some of the names of the innocent black people mercilessly killed in these episodes of police brutality. #BlackLivesMatter , the movement, expanded dramatically over this time, reacting and adapting to changes both online and off. The embryonic stages of BLM saw Garza, Cullors and Tometi utilising Tumblr and Twitter hashtags to grow the movement’s base democratically and organically. Something about the hashtag simply resonated with people, leading to them retweeting it, leading to others seeing it and retweeting it. It soon became an umbrella under which educating, campaigning, and organising took place. Activists were encouraged to lead BLM chapters in their local areas. Indeed, Garza, Cullors and Tometi have yet to reach household name status in the same way their creation, #BlackLivesMatter has. The decentralised approach was no mistake. Black Lives Matter doesn’t belong to any one person, or three people. The power of social media has made it possible for Black Lives Matter to belong to millions.
Recent times have seen the virtual world become a permanent part of our reality. The two are no longer separate. We work online, we play online, we shop online and we meet with friends and family online: doesn’t it make sense that our activism takes place online too? ‘Clicktivism’ is the name given to the hashtags, petition links and infographics that we put up on our Insta stories or we share to our walls on Facebook in an attempt to raise awareness about pressing world issues like climate change, poverty or systematic racism. ‘Clicktivism’ is regularly criticised for its shallow and low-effort nature. In the eyes of the sceptics, online activists are nothing but “slacktivists”, labouring under a delusion that a tweet or like makes a tangible difference in the world. A lot of the criticisms of online activism seem to be solely based on the fact that it’s too easy to do, feeding into the notion that the harder something is to do, the more it matters. Critics also claim that online activism undermines the genuinely interesting and important work of “true” activists. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about the current state of online activism but there’s no denying that it has raised significant funds for charitable causes, rocked the political establishment and been the driving force behind much-needed law reform, those who dismiss it entirely clearly haven’t been paying attention.
The term “clicktivism” dates back to the Kony 2012 era. For those of us too young to remember, Kony 2012 was a video campaign by the Invisible Children highlighting the forced recruitment of child soldiers by Ugandan Warlord, Joseph Kony. It was the first ever video to reach 1 million views on Youtube, doing so before Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’, Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition tape. Kony 2012 revolutionised the idea of fighting injustices from the comfort of your own bedroom but people, Ugandans especially, questioned the true impact of the online campaign. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, expressed worry that the video was an oversimplification of the problems faced by Uganda. Kagumire was also uncomfortable with the idea that “outsiders” were trying to impose their own ideas on Uganda on how to deal with Joseph Kony. I think that when it comes to Western activists promoting or trying to “help out” with Middle Eastern or African problems it can often come across as patronising, the kind of white patronisation that harks back to colonial times. It was felt by many Ugandans that the online campaign somewhat missed the mark and overlooked the complexities of conflicts in the African world. Reducing it to black and white. This is a weakness of many online awareness-raising campaigns: the intrinsic details of a given issue can be thrown out the window in favour of a snappy and simple headline. This, of course, is done to attract attention in order to raise awareness and funds for the project but we have to wonder: do people know what exactly they are supporting when they donate to online campaigns?
Sceptics of the Kony 2012 campaign also pondered whether “clicktivism” promoted complacency, a sort of my-job-here-is-done mentality, you share a video or like a post and there ends your engagement with the cause. This is a valid concern and I think it’s something we all witnessed in the aftermath of #BlackoutTuesday in June of this year. #BlackoutTuesday was an attempt by two black women working in music marketing to have business paused across the music industry for one full day. But like most social media endeavours, it soon took on a life of its own. There seemed to be confusion over what was being asked of people, and indeed, who was being asked to do it. Tens of millions of participants posted blank black boxes with the hashtags #BlackoutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter, eclipsing actually important postings under the hashtags. Certainly, when I woke up to a feed of blank black squares posted by my peers from college, secondary school and beyond, I wondered: who exactly is this helping? And: is silence really the answer right now? Kate White, from the University of British Columbia notes that when a small act of token support is very public in nature, allowing others to see that the person in question has supported the cause, it makes them less likely to help out later. I think that most of us can agree that the donation of time and money is the best and most important thing you can do to further a cause that you’re passionate about. A somewhat harsh UNICEF Sweden advertising campaign in 2013 went viral with the tagline: “Likes don’t save lives. Money does.” While this is an extreme perspective it raises crucial questions about “clicktivism.” Likes and hashtags work wonders for raising awareness about world issues and gaining signatures for petitions but likes and hashtags aren’t going to rebuild houses in Beirut after the August 4th explosion or put up Malaria nets in Nigerian villages. We’re all guilty of it, myself included, throwing up an infographic or hashtag on your story thirsting after the appearance of “wokeness” or that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing your Snapchat friends can see that you stand for something. But “true” activism incorporates multiple mediums, it’s okay to raise awareness on your social media pages, so long as you donate money or time to causes close to your heart when you can. Balance is the key here. If likes and hashtags are all you’re putting out, you may want to rethink who you’re doing it for…If your intentions are to further the cause, that’s what you’ll do. If your intentions are to seem “woke” in front of your friends, that’s all you’ll do.
While some critics dismiss online activism as being too easy, I’d argue that is precisely the point. “Clicktivism” is the most accessible form of activism. In the height of lockdown when #BlackLivesMatter made a significant resurgence in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, using the hashtag and signing petitions online was the only way higher risk persons and cocooners could get involved in the cause without endangering their lives. Those who braved the streets mid-pandemic could only do so because they used social media platforms to organise and manage protests. Live video was shared on various platforms to make it easier for demonstrators to find each other and evade and call out police violence.
Indeed, if “clicktivism” ended with simple, empty hashtags and likes, its critics might be right in their claims that it is lazy and disengaged and does no real good. But it doesn’t end there. It never has. From the summer of 2014 when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge crowdfunded its way to over 200 million dollars, to 2017 when #MeToo led to concrete changes in laws and policies across the globe, it has been proven time and again that social media activism has outstanding results. It does not hinder “true” activism but in fact, is true activism. The Internet has given us many gifts, but it is my hope that our generation will not be remembered for its TikTok dances or meme cats but its willingness to care for one another and stand up for what is right. In times like these, that’s all we can rely on.