I recently graduated from UC Berkeley, a socially and politically active university that played a pivotal role in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s and that prides itself on its deep-rooted relationship with activism, social justice, and protest culture. As I became immersed in the larger social justice landscape during my time on campus, I realized that much of the contemporary renditions of activism I saw around me were underwhelming compared to the past.
Like their historical counterparts, modern-day social and political activists are impassioned when it comes to standing up for causes they believe in, but unlike their predecessors, they have tools such as the internet and social media at their disposal. These tools have changed the nature and scope of activism and social justice work drastically. They have created a new public sphere where activists can communicate, disseminate information, fundraise, lobby, and organize at a greater scale, and with greater ease, than prior generations.
However, as social movements have developed online dimensions, a new segment of activists has emerged. Known commonly as “slacktivists” or “armchair activists,” these individuals are known for demonstrating their support for movements through relatively noncommittal actions such as likes, shares, or profile picture changes. In return for this low lift, they receive acknowledgement from their peers and a sense of self-gratification. In most cases, however, this support lacks an accompanying offline component, and therefore does not translate into tangible change. Without this continued, active support, movements lose steam and fall short of their potential.
A good example of this is the #BringBackOurGirls movement, which began in 2014 when the Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria. The hashtag-based movement began on Twitter and galvanized the support of millions around the world, including luminaries such as Michelle Obama, the Pope, and Malala Yousafzai. Despite the massive scale of engagement, the online support did not translate into sufficient offline public pressure that galvanized governments and institutions to take action. In addition, viral movements such as these often fail because they glaze over complex problems and are unable to embed online engagements in offline frameworks. In this case, issues of war and international politics were ignored as calls for action were placed on the American government rather than the Nigerian government. Today, despite over 6 million tweets in support of the movement, 112 of the girls remain missing and the movement has faded from the spotlight, eventually becoming replaced by new trending topics and causes.
This is not to say that technology has completely impaired the social justice environment. During the Arab Spring of 2011, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in empowering protesters to organize and share information at scale. Similarly, these platforms have enabled movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo to generate solidarity across geographic regions by enabling users to share their experiences, voice their concerns, and organize. However, these movements have shown that achieving concrete change using only these online experiences is unlikely, especially considering there is no mechanism for holding online activists accountable to continued offline allyship. Online movements are valuable when it comes to generating support and drawing attention to important issues, but in order for them to be successful, they must also have an offline component to guide engagement and push for concrete and informed goals that can successfully lead to meaningful social and policy reforms.
Hashtags die, trends change, and armchair activists eventually lose interest. Meanwhile, the true social justice champions are left frustrated as they push for tangible change, wondering why 10,000 likes on a computer screen hasn’t translated into $10,000 in donations or 10,000 pairs of feet on the ground. There is no doubt that having an online component can facilitate greater reach and engagement for movements. But, these online aspects are a means, rather than an end to social change. Without an offline segment working in tandem to direct engagements -- from the online public sphere towards creating visible change offline -- movements cannot succeed. Cornel West said that “justice is what love looks like in public,” but in the digital age, some forms of public engagement are more valuable for true change than others.
This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For February, the fellows have decided to respond to this quote from Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”