Special to the Times
An artfully crafted video portrays a 5-year-old boy learning of cruelty in another corner of the Earth for the first time.
The boy’s name is Gavin Russell, and his doe eyes widen with sadness and confusion as he is told of the Lord’s Resistance Army in an interview-like conversation with his father. He cannot comprehend that such evil can exist, and that a man named Joseph Kony can be responsible for causing such harm. Thirty minutes later, the video is over, and another person is indoctrinated. Within 24 hours, Kony’s name is everywhere. Millions have seen the short film by Jason Russell, Gavin’s father and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Invisible Children.
The video called for change. It asked viewers to “make Kony famous.” What resulted was the plastering of his face and the organization’s posters across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media sites, in addition to the repeated sharing of the Kony video. Millions became angered by what they saw in the video and took to their Facebook and Twitter pages to share their indignation with their friends and followers.
Fast forward to three weeks later, when the Kony movement has been all but forgotten. Social media users moved on to the latest attention-stealing movement, filing away their memories of the LRA leader and ignoring “Make Kony Famous Day” on April 20, which came and went with little fanfare.
Finding a place in the world of activism
Social media has gained rapid popularity as an instrumental activist tool in recent years with memorable results, such as in the 2009 protest in Moldova against its Communist government that brought 10,000 protesters to the streets through what was later named the “Twitter Revolution.” Similar cases have shown that not all movements end like Kony 2012, but have made it clear that the face of social activism has changed forever due to social media. What remains to be answered is what effects these platforms will have on activism and society.
“I think on one level it’s really easy to be an activist on social media,” said Katie Hillier, the lead digital ethnographer at Kelton Research and a La Verne alumna. “But to be an activist before social media was an investment. In the 1960s, people took to the streets and stayed up all night. This (social media) activism requires less of an investment from people.”
The protests that Hillier mentioned are best personified in “Small Change,” Malcom Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Gladwell wrote about a protest in February 1960 in Greensboro, N.C., that spread from four protesters in one restaurant to thousands of protesters across the country in less than a month. “Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized,” he wrote. “These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.”
Looking at the birth of a movement
The first use of social media as a tool in activism cannot be traced back to a single event, but according to a study by the Georgia Tech College of Computing called “From Slacktivism to Activism: Participatory Culture in the Age of Social Media,” a memorable use of social media in activism was the 1997 International Campaign to Ban Landmines. According to the proposal, 122 countries signed the international treaty to ban landmines, which would not have been achieved as it was without using Internet technology and computer-related communication.
“There’s the saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant for politics, and I think that the Internet is being that sunlight and elucidating issues that may not have been accessible previously,” said John Bartelt, University of La Verne professor of education-technology. “I think we’re going to see more revolution and more change happening, because technology and social media are making that possible. It’s an opportunity for the oppressed to throw off the shackles.”
The successful efforts of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was followed by the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, where protesters gathered to decry a variety of issues that included opposition to free trade methods the WTO used. The protests reached near-riot proportions and gained support through Internet discussion and circulation.
The face of the Internet and its role in activism changed exponentially with the introduction of social media sites, particularly the launch of Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. These sites, which are designed specifically to create a social network that can span the globe, have allowed users to share information in a vast network and bring greater support to important issues.
“For many people, there is this dilemma of, ‘I want to help, but what can I do?’” Bartelt said. “These social media sites allow people to spread the message, which is at least one form of helping out a cause.”
Social media activism, done right
Researchers have begun to explore the topic in an attempt to understand the movement and predict its implications. “Social Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory” by Nahed Eltantawy and Julie Wiest, professors from High Point University, closely examines the 2011 anti-government protests in Egypt that led to a resignation from its dictatorial leader, Hosni Mubarak. The paper argues that social media played an instrumental role in making these protests a success, and speculates that the state of the country would be different without the change that social media activism helped bring.
“Social media introduced speed and interactivity that were lacking in the traditional mobilization techniques, which generally include the use of leaflets, posters, and faxes,” Eltantawy and Wiest wrote. “For instance, social media enabled domestic and international Egyptian activists to follow events in Egypt, join social-networking groups, and engage in discussions.”
Examples of successful social media activism are seen worldwide; the use of social media helped stop crucial pieces of Internet censorship and copyright infringement legislation in the United States in January. More than 115,000 websites took part in an Internet blackout on Jan. 18 to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act. In addition more than 10 million people signed the petition to stop SOPA and PIPA. The protest took over Facebook news feeds and Twitter timelines, with more than 3 million tweets published mentioning the bills.
According to sopastrike.com, at least 13 senators backed away from the bill in one day and five co-sponsors dropped their support of the bill, all due to the overwhelming opposition shown by their constituents.
“I think that the triumph over SOPA and PIPA were a good success, but obviously not a total success, since the people behind it are still working to get the laws passed in another form,” said Eric Borer, communications department assistant and adjunct professor of journalism. “But it had the success it did because it used the tools and media of the younger generation to get the point across. We’re seeing this generational conflict that pits the old media corporations versus the new media corporations. But the younger generation has the force of history on its side.”
The Occupy movement, which began on Wall Street and spread to major and minor cities across the world, has made the most of social media to further its cause. Occupy camps all over the world such as Occupy L.A. had tents dedicated to social media, showing the seriousness of the protest and how useful those tools can be when utilized efficiently.
“Everyone had these feelings of discontent with the way things are, but they didn’t know how to express it,” Bartelt said. “The Occupy movement put these feelings into words and actions, and because they were so smart about their use of social media, the protesters were able to reach a larger base of people who felt the same way. This is an example of how social media can change the world.”
Borer agreed that social media was a key element in the force of the Occupy movement, but said that the generational struggle of old media versus new media was also at play in this conflict.
“There were no intermediaries there in the Occupy movement,” Borer said. “It’s not old-fashioned corporate media; it’s more nimble, immediate, and democratic. Through the use of social media in Occupy, the message comes from the bottom up instead of from the top down. It’s not obvious to everyone, but this is the media of the future, which is allowing the average person to find a world audience for whatever cause they stand for.”
The tools of the future generation at work
The Kony 2012 movement, which gained popularity overnight, fizzled in less than three weeks and has since received little mention in the news. Hundreds of articles emerged after the video went viral that questioned the validity of the movement and the information presented in the video, leading those who initially supported the cause to withdraw their support.
“I already knew of the situation in Uganda and the LRA, so when the Kony video went viral I thought it was kind of weird that it was all happening now,” sophomore English major Linda Oxford said. “I think using social media was a good way to tell people about things like this because it’s the only way that we get our information these days, but the information has to be accurate for it to be effective.”
Unlike Oxford, sophomore psychology major Jacob Talamantes was unaware that the LRA existed and that in Africa children were kidnapped and forced to join its ranks and do Kony’s bidding since 1987. He said that the Kony 2012 video introduced him to the topic, which he then supported until he did some more research on the topic and found that the video misled him to believe that Kony and the LRA were still active in Uganda.
“Once I did some research I didn’t want to put any more money into the movement, but I admit that the video was effective because it did get me to look into the cause,” Talamantes said. “Without things like Facebook and YouTube, I still wouldn’t have known about Kony or anything in that area of Africa, so if a simple video gets people to do something and even learn a little, I’m all for it.”
“The Kony movement was a flop, but it means that people will be wary next time they support a cause,” Bartelt said. “For every one Kony there are thousands of wonderful causes gaining attention, and social media is making that happen.”
Gladwell quotes “The Strength of Weak Ties,” a 1973 paper by sociologist Mark Granovetter “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information,” he wrote of Granovetter’s observations. “The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency.”
Gladwell argued that weak ties rarely lead to high-risk activism, but Eltantawy and Wiest disagreed.
“Social media technologies have been used especially in organizing and implementing collective activities, promoting a sense of community and collective identity among marginalized group members, creating less-confined political spaces, establishing connections with other social movements, and publicizing causes to gain support from the global community,” they wrote.
Despite evidence of successful social media activism, Hillier says that nothing can compare to “authentic activism,” in which people make enough of an investment in a cause that it drives them to physical action.
“Gladwell made the point that unless people make the activism or protest a part of their own soul, connected to their emotions and their very core, then change doesn’t happen,” she said. “Liking something in Facebook isn’t going to change anything.”
Junior political science major Monique Osorio says she believes that social media has a place in the world of activism, but it depends on the younger generations to make it an effective tool.
“I think the Kony movement and similar movements we’ve recently seen show how powerful social media can be if we grasp it and use it well,” Osorio said. “It also shows us the influence our generation can have if they take enough interest to look into an issue instead of joining a bandwagon cause.”
Lauren Creiman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.