Go ahead. Call online activism slacktivism. Just stop underestimating the impact of small actions such as Facebook likes, status updates or re-tweets for social change. New social research shows this micro-messaging can have a powerful emotional and psychological impact on the recipients of these messages—and, over time, can be key to the success and staying power of social movements.
"We know that these small actions online—anything that takes a few minutes to complete, like a status update or a comment to share, or a re-tweet—are things that many people do just to get attention," says social scholar An Xiao Mina. "But what we're just beginning to understand is how important these small actions are to individuals on the receiving end of these messages." Micro-actions and affirmations can tell people, "We see you, we love you, we care that you are there," An told the annual gathering of the Personal Democracy Forum (#PDF14) meeting today in New York. "Over time, these micro-affirmations can have a cumulative effect. They can create visibility. They can provide emotional uplift for people facing trauma. Creating a cycle of these micro-affirmations," she said, can create the "emotional fuel" that social movements need to launch and to survive.
Consider Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who "was just getting his feet wet with Twitter" in 2010, An said. Ai, who expresses himself and organizes people through art and social media, would start tweeting each day by saying 'Good morning' to his followers. "This would happen dozens of times," An said, "perhaps even hundreds of times, every day, when people would say "Good morning" back to him. And then he would re-tweet all of the 'Good mornings' he got from his followers. In the evenings, he would also say 'Good night' and with that, he might also give a weather update. And again, he'd re-tweet the replies, and his followers would re-tweet his replies each other, across the community. It was a way for Ai to make sure that the conversation was not just between him and his 60,000 followers, but that his 60,000 followers saw each other."
In this way, An said, Ai made the Chinese Twitter community visible—to itself and to others. Before, it had been in hiding. "This visibility," An said, "jumped geographic boundaries. People could now participate at any time of day throughout China and throughout the Chinese diaspora. He showed people they were not alone in their interest in Ai Weiwei and his work."
And that's not all. About a year later, An said, when Ai was disappeared by the Chinese government, many of these same people from this same community spoke out for him and helped to keep him visible. [See Free Ai Weiwei, an information hub that continues to serve as a source for news about the artist and his work.]
In Uganda, micro-actions via social media also have proven to be powerful. An cited that country's Kuchu movement, a fledgling gay-rights movement which has found organizing strength and sustainability in Twitter hashtag communities, where Kuchu members share the struggles of Uganda's LGBT community—and recruit new followers. Members, An said, have come to rely on Twitter and texting to stave off isolation and to provide the emotional uplift they need to endure media and government harassment. "Twitter is not tangential to the work of human rights in Uganda," An said. "It is essential to it, especially in the face of major human rights violations."
"...Hashtag memes make people feel better about who they are and give them strength and a voice as they continue their work," An said.
Emily Parker, author of the new book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, says the emotional strength and connection that activists can find online continues to make social media "a serious threat" to authoritarian regimes—despite some governments' efforts to quash the use of social media or use it as a tool for surveillance and oppression.
Parker, also a speaker at #PDF14, said the Internet provides ordinary people with an alternative to isolation, fear, or apathy—the very things authoritarian regimes depend upon to stay in power. "Now, in large part because of the Internet, ordinary people are overcoming their paralysis, and discovering they're not alone," Parker said. "For a dissident in China, or Cuba, or Russia, this can be a life-changing experience."
And perhaps most importantly, Parker says, social media can make activism convenient for apathetic people who might otherwise do nothing.
Consider Russia, she said. As recently as a few years ago, there was no serious Internet censorship in Russia. "The Kremlin didn't need to censor the Web because the Web wasn't a serious threat to its power," Parker said "Russia was plagued by its apathy. Most Russians believed they had no power at all to change or to influence their political process." People were afraid of being arrested in protests and figured the protests wouldn't change anything, so they stayed home.
Then along came a Russian commercial lawyer who began blogging against corporate and government corruption and started using his blog to launch campaigns against specific corporations he suspected of corruption. "He understood early on that he was trying to get a weary, cynical population to rally for change," Parker said. "He told me in 2010, 'You have to propose to people the comfortable way to struggle.' In other words, this was not the time to haul Russians into the streets. It would be far more practical, he said, to just say please, just fill out this online form. And so that's what he did. Encouraging lazy, non-committal Internet activism—which many of us derisively refer to as 'slacktivism'—was all part of his master plan. He wanted to show Russians that they can fight corruption from the convenience of their living rooms, and that they could win."
Parker said this lone blogger's repeated calls to readers to write to authorities and demand they investigate alleged corruption eventually led to the annulment of suspicious government contracts worth millions of dollars. "He waged years of these online campaigns," Parker said, "and sometimes he got results. Maybe an official would resign, maybe just a pothole would be fixed. But most importantly, he showed ordinary Russians that they can make a difference and in the process, took a powerful swipe at the apathy that had become the Kremlin's best protection."
Says Parker: "Of course, a Facebook 'like' is not the same thing as on-the-ground participation. But seeing tens of thousands of people expressing virtual protest can have a powerful psychological and emotional effect."
"I'm not going to downplay governments' oppression of the Web," she added, "but what's important to see is that the Internet is helping to create a new kind of citizen. They're networked, unafraid and ready for action. Social media is helping them to overcome the isolation, fear and apathy that are the lifeblood of authoritarian regimes."
PDF14 runs through today. Watch this space for further highlights.
-- Marcia Stepanek