Activism in the Digital Age of Social Distancing

In this time of social distancing and increased reliance on technology, how can we create real change for problems we care about? There are many ways to take action,  and Generation Z is always finding new ways to do so in times of uncertainty. Some of these methods including signing petitions, donating, and posting on social media, will all be discussed throughout this article. However, it should be noted that some methods are more effective than others. 

In this article, I will talk about three main types of activism – performative activism, passive activism, and real activism – as well as analyse which is the most effective. It is important to respond appropriately to issues we care about, and ensure that our actions contribute to positive change and progression.

I will first start off with a quick case study. I am sure you are all familiar with the recent death of George Floyd and other innocent Black American individuals, as well the Black Lives Matter movement. 

When George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white Minnesota police officer, many people took to social media to express their opinions of irritation, anger, and injustice. Many participated in #blackouttuesday, where they posted a black square on their social media feeds to stand in solidarity with the Black community. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift participated in this as well. People were also reposting news stories, twitter threads, petition links and donation links all over social media. Several peaceful BLM protests took place across the United States, and in countless other countries as well. 

It was refreshing to see so many people talking about BLM on social media, and consciously choosing to speak up instead of staying silent. However, much of the actions described above are characteristic of performative activism

@sadeyoncee on twitter

Performative activism is when people participate in an activist movement not necessarily because they believe in the cause, but more so because they want to increase their own social capital. This phrase became popular during the George Floyd protests, when individuals and celebrities were accused of “hopping on the bandwagon,” instead of taking any tangible action. “Bandwagon” is used in reference to an activity or cause that is trending or popular. This type of fake activism often occurs online, especially on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook. As my social media feed was flooded with black images, I couldn’t help but wonder what difference they were actually making. Many began to point out that the black images were actually drowning out relevant content under the BLM hashtag, such as petitions and donation links. 

This brings in another term called virtue signaling. Many people want their followers to know they’re “one of the good ones,” and that they are politically active. But simply hopping on “the bandwagon” and posting messages of support on social media to check off an imaginary box, is simply not enough. Posting on social media releases endorphins and makes us feel good about ourselves, but this cause is not about us. The attention should not be placed on how great we are for reposting content in support of BLM. The attention should be on making a real difference for the marginalized Black communities around the world. Without coupling these performative actions with real action and education -no real change will take place. 

There is no denying that social media can be a very effective tool in enacting change. It has a wide and global reach, and it can help get a conversation started. One common way people have been using social media is to repost petition links for people to sign. Petition links were frequently posted during the BLM movement, and to raise awareness for other causes such as the Yemen Crisis and police reform. But have you ever wondered how effective these petitions really are? If anything, petitions signal mass support for a certain cause which policymakers will eventually have to take note of. The main effect of a petition is not necessarily persuading its target, but recruiting new people to the cause. When we sign petitions, our information becomes visible to others, and this can encourage other possible joiners to sign as well. The most common petition-hosting site is Change.org, and some of its petitions have actually made a difference. For example, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012, his parents started a petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader who shot him. More than 2.2 million people signed in support of the cause. Policymakers took note and by April 2012, the Florida State attorney announced that charges of second-degree murder would be lodged against Zimmerman. Another example has to do with Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York Police Department officer in December 2017. His youngest daughter launched a petition to have that officer be fired, and this petition received 144,000 signatures. In August of the next year, New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill fired the accused officer. 

So petitions are actually quite useful as proven by these two cases. However, is it enough to just sign a bunch of petitions and hope that some change will take place? My answer to this is no. This is characteristic of a term known as passive activism, or slacktivism. The United Nations defines slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures,” but are not necessarily, “engaged or devoted to making a change.” Other terms used to describe this type of activism are “clicktivism” or “arm-chair activism.” Some examples of slacktivism include retweeting the viral hashtag, wearing a pink ribbon on your shirt, or dumping a bucket of ice water on your head. These things are done with good intentions, and it helps raise awareness. But is this real activism? Sharing a link or signing a petition is easy – it just takes a few clicks. Taking no further action simply means that you are disengaging from the issue at hand. We cannot be satisfied with these menial measures. 

Performance activism and passive activism are not enough, but they are a start. They must be paired with real activism. Think of ways you can spark real change. To end this article, I will outline some ways that I believe are effective in promoting systemic change. First, education and awareness is key. Read books, watch documentaries, or even talk to someone directly related to the cause. Know that it is okay to have your views challenged.

 I like to educate myself by researching and writing articles on causes I am particularly passionate about. I am part of a youth run news organisation called Genzenith, and I write monthly articles about economic, political or environmental issues. The research and writing process is fairly intensive and I learn so much each time. Writing is a great way to share your informed opinions and have your voices heard. Whether it be non-fiction or fictional/creative writing, it helps raise awareness and takes time and effort. I encourage you to write for news publications to deepen your knowledge. Furthermore, donating to credible organisations is always a good option. This can help organisations to directly improve their services and help alleviate the issue at hand. Lastly, participate in activities that will allow you to directly engage with issues you are passionate about. You can protest peacefully with your local community, participate in Model United Nations to debate policies, or volunteer with organisations. There are plenty of online opportunities to get involved with MUN and volunteer with organisations. 

It is undoubtedly difficult to be fully involved in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but there are still ways to take concrete action and educate ourselves. It is no secret that Generation Z is an extremely outspoken and creative generation, and I’m sure we can come up with innovative ways to take action in this digital age of social distancing. In the end, we must all stand together and promote real activism over performative and passive activism.

Click for direct action resources!


SOURCES:

Kaur, Harmeet. “10 Petitions That Made the Biggest Impact This Decade.” CNN, Cable News Network, 31 Dec. 2019, edition.cnn.com/2019/12/22/us/top-petitions-decade-change-trnd/index.html.

“Performative Activism.” Performative Activism – What Does Performative Activism Look like?, slangit.com/meaning/performative_activism.“What Is Slacktivism and Is It Even Helping?” Nonprofit Hub, 10 Jan. 2019, nonprofithub.org/social-media/what-is-slacktivism-does-it-help/.

“What Is Slacktivism and Is It Even Helping?” Nonprofit Hub, 10 Jan. 2019, nonprofithub.org/social-media/what-is-slacktivism-does-it-help/.


Priyasha Chakravarti

Priyasha is a 17 year old senior studying the IBDP in International School Manila in the Philippines. She is originally from India. Her favorite subjects are Politics, Economics, Environmental Science and English. She is very passionate about addressing social justice issues, political polarisation, and youth involvement in political and global issues. She is a writer for a environmental youth led organisation called Bye Bye Plastic Bags Philippines and the co-head of research and content for Project Puno. In addition, she is a writer for a youth led news publication called Genzenith. Priyasha is also a co-founder of a service and literary initiative called Inside Out, where she combines her love of literature and service to create a positive change. Aside from working for her organisations and stressing over IB/college apps, her hobbies include playing badminton, singing, and Model United Nations. She is very excited to be a writer, poet, and editor for Zenerations!

Published by Priyasha Chakravarti

Priyasha is a rising senior studying in the Philippines. She is very excited to be a high school ambassador for IBlieve because she wants to build a sense of community and help others. She is very passionate about politics and economics. In her free time, she loves to play badminton, sing and write!

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