How Social Media Has Changed Activism In The Modern World

Approximately, 10-15 million people marched throughout the world to oppose the Iraq War on February 15, 2003. The world was out on the streets protesting against the war that killed thousands of innocent people in Iraq. Despite the massive number of protestors, those claiming to be super powers of the world were ignorant towards the cause and kept dropping bombs on Iraqis. On the other hand, on January 21, 2017, thousands of women in the United States of America protested against Donald Trump’s inauguration, which was said to be one of the largest protests to have taken place in the country. Even though both these protests managed to gather massive crowds but what made one more impactful than the other was the power of internet or possibly social media, where activists fought using online petitions, hashtags, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, videos and snaps through their computers and mobile phones as well as using what is commonly referred to as online activism.

As a wise man once said, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. However, the power of the click has now, undoubtedly, taken over the might of the pen as well. A single click on the internet can change a country’s policies, drag criminals to courts and bring a sea of people out on the streets, that too in a matter of hours, to be precise. There was a time when individuals protested on the streets and led campaigns to get their voices heard, but now the times have changed, for the first step one takes towards beginning any sort of campaign or protest, is to make it known on the internet or social media. Social media is now the most powerful tool of communication and its users are making the most out of it. Activists working for human, civil or women rights now look towards social media to create awareness and register their protests, as it becomes easier for them to get their message across. It not only helps rights activists but also those looking to raise funds, building communities, lobbying, working towards advocacy and awareness, organising and mobilising the masses, or instigating action and receiving reaction from the addressed entity.

What is Online Activism?

According to IGI Global, “The term is defined as the use of new information-communication technologies to support social and citizen movements.

The term is also referred to as Internet activism, digital activism, online organising, electronic advocacy, cyber-activism, e-activism, keyboard activism, slacktivism, clicktivism and social media activism. However, not all fall under the same category, as keyboard activism, slacktivism are terms used to criticise those leading activism campaigns from behind the computer and not stepping on the ground to voice their concerns. Despite the number of successful online campaigns many still consider it an excuse to get away from doing anything practically.

Shumaila Hussain Shahani, a research associate for law and gender at Bolo Bhi, a civil society organisation, states, “Criticism on social media activism is a classic case of generation gap. Those who criticise are doing it because they haven’t spent a lot of time being a part of online activism. They do not understand that what one says online becomes data; our online activities are tracked and recorded. It helps connect voters to those in power which has always been a challenge otherwise. This is exactly how a democracy works,” she says, adding, “There is no denying the importance of on-ground activism but online activism where one hand helps raise awareness, it also helps to gather support for a cause and magnify the impact of any movement.”

From the virtual world to the real world

What makes this kind of activism uncertain is it absence in the practical world. What is advocated in the virtual world must be advocated in reality as that is the only way to ensure the credibility as well as authenticity of a cause.

Saba Khalid a gender rights activists and founder of Aurat Raaj, believes, “If online activism is only to complain, then it’s useless, for it has to be supplemented with offline work. Reporting facts, statistics and sharing news is important if you have any influence online. But doing something to counter the problems is equally important.”

A great example of this very belief is the hashtag movement #BringBackOurGirls, which even the then first lady Michelle Obama of the United States of America took part in along with Malala Yousufzai as well as several influential personalities throughout the world. The hashtag movement, though led to a worldwide protest against Boko Haram, a militant group that abducted hundreds of young girls in Nigeria, is still considered to be a not-so-successful campaign, as many of the girls are yet to be released.

Towards a good deed

One cannot simply ignore the impact social media has had on modern ways to protest, advocate issues, create awareness and divert attention towards pressed issues such as human or civil rights. Individuals who have a standing on social media for their respective professions or talents are now termed as influencers. These influencers have an impact on those following them on various social media websites or platforms both on and off the internet. Such is the case of comedian Junaid Akram, who is popularly known for his funny yet thought-provoking videos on Facebook where he is not just moving his facial muscles to make people laugh but also spills words of wisdom directed towards issues of public interest. This lad has a massive following not just in Pakistan but from around the world, which has made it easier for him to influence thousands of people and many a times he is seen addressing people to work towards good causes that can help those in need. One may wonder how many people he exactly manages to influence?

“There's no method to gauge how many people are affected but the general feedback and the growth are factors that assure something right is being done. Some people do come up and message that they had a different opinion about a certain issue and now that's completely changed because of my video so yes, it does seem to affect some. I'm not here to overhaul the entire society. I'm aiming to change one person only and in turn they will change someone and so on,” he said while talking to MAG.

Many influencers like him are working to highlight both positive and negatives aspects of our society. Many social media campaigns that started as a single day event turned into movements influencing not just a commoner but those in power as well. However, what needs to be considered is its importance among the masses.

“It really depends on the severity of the case. Though some things are really important but to an average Pakistani, they're not - like women's rights. Internet is a very powerful tool to create awareness about issues without any censorship and has been very helpful in so many cases. But the issue has to be in line with the commoner who has to find it relatable in order to have his two cents,” Junaid asserts, adding, “Though internet in Pakistan hasn't really achieved that kind of good odds with results but we're getting there and people are learning.”

Legal boundaries

Keeping in mind the implementation of the cybercrime law, Pakistanis are now vulnerable to being arrested for even sharing a meme on their social media account. Therefore leading an entire movement to either influence policies, politics, revolutionise the justice system or fight for the rights of marginalised individuals can easily get them in hot waters more than ever.

Lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad warns the online activists about the law. “It’s very important for people who are using internet, social media, or information or communication technologies, to read the cybercrime legislation because the Prevention of Cybercrime Act basically underlines online activities which fall under the cybercrime.”

While underlining the notion that our people are ignorant about the legislation, NIghat advises internet, particularly social media users, to avoid sharing memes, crack jokes or comments on controversial topics without having substantial information about it, as it can be termed under hate speech, abuse, violence or harassment and may constitute as a crime.

No matter how impactful online activism is, it is at the end of the day a person’s responsibility to differentiate between what is right and what is wrong and just because it’s all over the internet, it is not mandatory for you to click like or share something, all in the race to become an activist. If one believes in causes, it is important to not just support it from behind the screen but step outside and make an actual difference.