“Can a click make a difference in the world? By itself, probably not, but when combined with tens and even hundreds of thousands of other clicks, it may just have an impact,” says writer Jeffrey Strain, citing the power of social media. Indeed, with the power of social media to convey a single piece of information to a multitude of people, it is increasingly being utilised for activism, serving as a catalyst for actions contributing to social change. While skeptics of social media claim that its effectiveness is undermined by the lack of need for physical participation, one cannot deny that the outreach of social media allows it to capture a massive audience (of which some will certainly be incentivised to take concrete action) making it an ideal springboard to achieve the intention of activism – to incite participation toward a certain cause. As such, I largely agree that activism done through social media is effective.
Proponents cite the propensity of social media to reach out to all individuals as the main factor for the success of social media activism. Social media allows everyone to know about social issues, whether they occur within one’s country or across the globe – even within the comfort of their own homes. The international nature of social media also means that information of happenings around the world can transcend national boundaries and be heard and watched by individuals across the world, perhaps even before traditional forms of media like television can pick up the story. Hearing about the plight or suffering of others incites a sense of compassion in people – even more so as stories of events on social media tend to be more authentic, being first-hand accounts from laymen unedited or uncensored by corporations or governments. One individual who has harnessed social media for social change is Canadian Shawn Ahmed who travelled to Bangladesh for altruistic purposes and used YouTube as his tool. When hundreds of thousands of viewers saw his video on a Bangladeshi school that was devastated by a cyclone, many of them immediately sent money to help rebuild it. Initially, the local village only had enough funds to replace the roof of the school, but with viewers’ donations, Ahmed was not only able to help rebuild the school, but also procure supplies for local fishermen, provide financial assistance to single mothers, as well as build a well for the village. An achievement of such a magnitude would likely be impossible without the ability to engage an audience back in North America via Twitter ‘tweets’ and video logs from Bangladesh. It can therefore be seen that the power of social media to move many people and incentivise them to help out and make a difference towards a certain cause that makes social media activism highly effective, even more so as compared to traditional media like television.
On the other hand, detractors of social media postulate that the success of activism efforts done with the help of social media may be diminished because it brings about the problem of ‘slacktivism’. ‘Slacktivism’ is coined pejoratively, being a portmanteau of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’, referring to measures that require minimal personal effort and have little practical effect beyond allowing people to derive satisfaction from the feeling that they have contributed. Social media gives people the ability to share information with a great many others, be it details of a certain cause, a viral video highlighting pertinent social issues, or evidence about one’s awareness about the situation – literally with a click of a button. Lamentably, this power exacerbates the “]’slacktivism’ problem as it makes people believe that they helped out on a social cause simply by sharing things over social media, rather than doing something practical. One pertinent example would be the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, meant to raise awareness and funds to aid those afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease (which severely impairs motor activity). In the challenge, participants could choose between making a cash donation or the actual “ice bucket” challenge – and most opted for the latter, believing that it could make as much of a difference as a cash donation, while being more fun. In creating videos of themselves pouring iced water over their heads, people placed high value on their efforts spent and falsely perceive such an act as a substitute for more concrete action such as donating or volunteering to help out victims personally. Regrettably, social media may cause people to overrate their actions and feel that they have done tremendously to help out on certain societal causes when all they have done is post something related to the issue at hand.
Of course, while a significant proportion of individuals are unwilling to put in concrete action towards social change, there is still a number of people who wish to do more. This is where social media serves as a first step towards greater accomplishments. With its ability to gather a sizeable target audience, in unprecedented magnitudes compared to that of television or newspapers, many more people are now aware of various social causes, which gives much more opportunities to engage people beyond mere understanding. A case in point would be that of Canadian Craig Kielburger, the founder of “Free the Children” (an organization that helps build schools worldwide). Out of the hundreds of thousands of people who ‘liked’ the organisation’s Facebook page, only 2,000 committed to a trip overseas to help the cause. Even so, Kielburger was in praise of social media, stating that it “opens the megaphone so much wider… when you finally look at that spectrum, we’ve got more people who are finally making that journey”. Kielburger’s example highlights the effectiveness of social media as a pilot for actions towards social change.
All in all, many cases have demonstrated the power of a single click when said click is accompanied by similar clicks from a great many other individuals. While a significant proportion of individuals passively receive and pass on information over social media, a sizeable them are willing to do more than just spread news. As such, social media has indeed attained its intention of being a catalyst of social change, whatever its scale.