William Zhang and Jason Choi | Slacking for social change

Frosh Off the Boat | During an age when awareness displaces actual action, what’s in a like?

· April 8, 2014, 6:31 pm   ·  Updated April 9, 2014, 1:01 am

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Social media sites have been flooded by "pray for MH 370" messages ever since the unresolved disappearance of the airplane and its 227 passengers. Photos of grieving bereaved and Facebook statuses urging people to pray have become viral on media platforms. While there are few physical means by which most social media frequenters can contribute to the search for the lost flight (except for absolute reliance on divine intervention), this kind of online activism is apparent in cases in which physical change can indeed be made. What fascinates us, therefore, is the issue of people using social networks to advocate for a social cause.

Setting aside countries whose people use social networking sites to rally troops and organize protests against oppressive regimes (e.g. Syria), the primary purpose of online activism often seems to be "to raise awareness" for a social cause. As middle-class international students who rarely travel to other countries for volunteer  work, most of our so-called contributions to social causes overseas manifest online in the form of Facebook "likes" and "shares." The ease with which we can be activists through a simple “like” or “retweet” has been perceived as instigating a lack of real action. Organizers seem to focus more on simply raising awareness, and social media users falsely recognize their peripheral social media involvement as significant activism .

The apparent futility of sharing other people's photos or words in bringing about social change sparked an online debate after a controversial hit-and-run in Hong Kong. Kevin Lau, chief editor of a vocally anti-Chinese-government newspaper, was sacked before being stabbed by an unknown assailant in Hong Kong last month. Concerns over press freedom starts to fuel discussions across social networking sites as petition after petition emerges. We fall among the tens of thousands of overseas students who seek solace in the fact that we can support our home from thousands of miles away by signing the virtual petition on Facebook. Some of our international peers held a dissenting opinion. They assert that this form of Facebook activism is a self-beguiling distraction that breeds complacency, a.k.a. slacktivism . Dissenters who still maintained a modicum of idealism suggested more official channels of online activism (e.g. change.org, a centralized platform for petitions); the more cynical of them refused entirely to partake in what they see as a futile and needless enterprise.

What confounds us the most, however, is our friend's reaction to this petition. Instead of spending five seconds on typing his signature, he began to wax eloquence and justify his refusal to sign. “The ostensible contributions to a social cause made by the pressing of the 'like’ button on a Facebook post,” he argued, sipping his overpriced Starbucks coffee, “gives us a feeling of having ‘done enough’ and hinders ‘actual’ activism.”

We simply cannot fathom why a person would go out of his way to avoid online activism when he is already aware of its possible side effects. That aside, while it may be true that certain social causes oversimplify social problems, are myopic in scope (e.g. Kony 2012) and depthless in agenda, it is publicity that catalyzes extensive discussions into their subject matter. Most of us would likely still be oblivious to the Kony 2012 issue had it not been for the infamous campaign, however controversial it was.

The legitimacy of a social cause and solutions to the ills of it targets are more likely to be addressed if public discourse encourages it. Instead of avoiding an online social campaign because it is flawed, say why it is so. Start the discussion and spread the word, regardless of how marginal the change you may bring; even though slacktivism should still be addressed, it is at worst a preferable substitute for actually slacking. Activists and organizers need to recognize social media activism as a possible entry point to their campaigns. It is their responsibility to show “likers”and “sharers” the concrete steps they can proceed with to contribute beyond the click of a mouse. In an era when media corporations are increasingly criticized for being biased and having a stranglehold on information, there is no time for stifling our own voices. 

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