Online activism: Does it make a difference?

In this week’s Nelson Mail column, I asked if online activism really makes a difference. Can a Facebook like really feed a child? Here’s the full story with all relevant links.

By Springbok Tour standards, I’m no activist. I’ve never been to a public protest. I’ve never been pepper sprayed. I’ve never been toe to toe with a police line.

But times have changed. “Online activism” is the new face of the internet. The ways in which we can gather, protest, raise awareness, and force change have been blown wide open.

You can barely open your inbox, check Facebook, or click Twitter without being petitioned to join one cause or another. However the efficacy of “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” can be difficult to measure.

A study in the Journal of Sociological Science found that while thousands of people may “like” a Facebook page for a cause, they don’t take any further action.

According to the Guardian, “return rates for charities and campaigns on Facebook can be a tenth of those for traditional routes such as mail . . . it’s easy to click, but just as easy to disengage.”

Nicole Skews, campaign manager for the independent movement ActionStation, says New Zealand could suffer from an increasingly cynical, disengaged population.

“ActionStation is about enabling everyday Kiwis to hold power to account. The problem is not that people don’t care. We care so much, but we are not feeling listened to or genuinely represented in Parliament or public debate.

“We believe wholeheartedly that the best antidote to despair is to do something useful,” says Skews. “We know that if lots of people come together and do small actions, we can effect big change.”

In its short life, ActionStation has grown to 10,000 members, played a key role in stopping ivory trade in New Zealand, and is currently frontfooting a campaign to force a review of the police decisions regarding the Roast Busters case.

“Online activism is all about amplification,” says Skews.

“Going down to your local protest isn’t always an option for a lot of people. It’s crucial that what we do online works with and supports relevant communities, services and on-the-ground activism.

“Online activism can’t exist meaningfully without them – it’s one-dimensional. But it’s important that people have options of how to use their resources. And the flipside of that is that communities can leverage off online platforms to organise and raise awareness more effectively.”

Following the breaking of the Roast Busters case this time last year, a 115,000-signature petition was delivered to Parliament, which called for further rape prevention education, including around the issue of consent. The majority of those signatures were collected online.

Since then, classes on sexual consent have been trialled around the country, including at Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls.

The Mail reported that local teachers were impressed with the effectiveness of the programme, one describing it as “the best thing to have happened in health education”. (That link goes to a really great editorial on the subject).

The trial will need more public support if it is to be formally included in the curriculum.

The online petition platform has made it easy for people worldwide to get behind the causes they care about.

In Australia, 127,750 signatures forced rental company Wicked Campers to remove offensive and misogynistic slogans from their vehicles, after an 11-year-old girl was distressed by the tag “In every princess, there’s a little sl*t who just wants to try it once”.

In the United States, 1,866,000 people signed some 124 petitions demanding an end to Boy Scouts of America’s century long ban on gay members – and won.

Closer to home, a comprehensive mix of on and offline campaigning helped to prevent the closure of Richmond’s Salisbury School.

The movement included community work and fundraising, and a petition to the education and science select committee from the board of trustees.

All sides of the political spectrum are represented in the Kiwi “blogosphere”, with websites ranging from the Right-wing mouthpiece Whaleoil, to the newly launched On The Left, for which I am a writer.

“There’s a huge range of people working on many different issues in different parts of this country,” says Asher Wilson-Goldman, who co-founded OTL.

“If we can help shed some light on their great work, hopefully it’ll grow and allow others to plant their own seeds.”

OTL writer and politics student Carys Goodwin says: “I want to push for change, but I want to do so in a way that inspires other people to do the same.

“Frustration, uncertainty, and dread for the future do not have to be the mark of the Left-wing blogosphere. We can be constructive. I’m on the Left because I’m angry, but I’m [part of] On the Left because that’s not all I want to be.”

It seems obvious that a “like” on Facebook doesn’t feed a child. It cannot create change alone. But it sparks awareness, and that can spread like wildfire.

And when it’s joined with the right action offline, and driven by the right people, the online thumbs up has massive potential.

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