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Opinion | Online activism whispers in the face of injustice. Do something rather than fall prey to the Wild West social media has become

The rise in online activism as a means for education and advocacy might not be as beneficial as we believe. James Lewis shares his opinion on why social media's role in activism is simply not effective.

By James Lewis, First Year, English

If you have had any access to the internet recently, which I assume you have, it is almost guaranteed that you will have seen some form of ‘online activism’. This is the sharing of media by individuals in support of a cause that they feel passionately about. This type of activism has a number of benefits which include: the ability for people outside of the mainstream media to voice their opinions and be heard, it reduces the barriers to entering political discourse and it enables the empowering of marginalised groups through collective action. While this was possible before the internet, it is amplified by the scale at which people can connect online, as their ideas are easily transmittable across thousands of miles in seconds. However, this type of activism is not perfect and can lead to further problems.

The ease at which someone can ‘repost’ a piece of bitesize information can mean the proliferation of fake news, that has been created to display a skewed version of events. Such media can distort perceptions or even cause someone to shy away from engaging in current affairs out of fear of being misled. The EU even sent a letter to Elon Musk on the 10th of October this year warning him of the punishments if his company, X (formerly known as Twitter), continued to, ‘Disseminate illegal content and disinformation in the EU.’ In a world where complex AI can create seemingly real looking photographs and videos that are easily accessible to everyone, it seems logical to assume that terrorist groups, trolls who take pleasure in chaos and those with highly convicted mindsets would find it beneficial to create false media in order to capture the public’s attention, knowing that if someone reposts it then their followers may well vouch for its authenticity without any proof. The issue is that much of what is shared online does not come from dependable sources and so it is a wilderness of what is and is not real.

This torrent of repeated and reposted information makes dependable news from trusted sources more and more obscure; such online activism can crowd out important information that would be far more informative with more scope for someone to form their own opinion from. In 2020 this concern came to the fore with ‘Black Out Tuesday’, where users of social media posted a black square to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement. Those seeking important information using ‘#BLM’ or ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ were instead greeted with a great wall of nothingness, proving that such activism can actually have the inverse effect of what is desired. This move also came under fire for being virtual signalling, which trivialises the movement and turns it into a ‘trend’, which faces the possibility of being lost on the internet, as so many are.

Recently, several world events have triggered a wave of online activism, such as the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict, as well as the environmental crisis and injustices among different marginalised groups. While I do see the benefits of informing those who follow you on a matter that is important to you and the feel-good factor of feeling helpful in an otherwise helpless situation, the conversion of these genuine issues into a trend that comes and goes makes me uncomfortable; the war in Ukraine is still going on, injustices prevail, many other worthwhile causes go relatively unnoticed. This activism, while seemingly coming from a counter-cultural corner of society is actually just an extension of the problematic news cycles that, at their core, function to generate profit.

Most causes that fit what I deem to be ‘trending’ online are already widely reported by the mainstream media, which is why they become so widely shared, which in turn serves to prop up the media that needs to readdress their processes of news-making. For example, the current Yemeni famine is described by the UN as, ‘The world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ yet there has been and will likely continue to be little to no coverage despite, ‘21.6 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection services.’ While it is not possible to compare suffering, the lacking recognition of certain events makes the activism two dimensional, because of the ease at which it can be done. The very notion of this activism encourages further neglect of other important world events, because these act as signifiers to the media and even politicians as to what time and resources should be committed to. While obviously it is always good that world events are addressed by countries who have the finances to support or the political clout to take part in or set up constructive meetings, the lack of attention that is given to events that occur outside of Western powers’ scope of interest feels like a continuing hangover from colonialism. It highlights that eurocentrism continually fails to look after those who cannot get their voices heard and continue to suffer as a consequence.

While people will continue to advocate for causes they believe in using social media, I think that each time we think to press the ‘share button’, we should all take that extra second to consider what it is that we are sharing. We should do our best to find its authenticity, ensure that we are properly educated on the subject that it is in reference to and also consider why it is we are doing what we are doing. Perhaps it would be better if everyone were to actually do something rather than post something that 90 per cent of people will skip anyway. That could be to attend a march or sign a petition; actions speak louder than words and they shout compared to pixels on a screen.

Featured Image: Sergey Zolkin/Unsplash

Do you think online activism is useful or useless when it comes to advocating for causes that are important? Let us know @epigrampaper