Columns

Lennon ’18: Online activism not enough

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Opinions Columnist
Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Sept. 26, thousands of people will gather in Central Park with one common goal: to end poverty. The Global Citizen festival occurs annually in September to promote campaigns such as investing more in education or making the world polio-free. Top musicians will perform at this year’s show, including Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Pearl Jam and Coldplay, and celebrities such as Kerry Washington and Stephen Colbert, among others, will co-host.

So, how does one get free tickets to the most exciting concert of the year? Global Citizen has you take “action journeys” — a series of actions throughout the summer in order to be entered into the ticket raffle. Actions include writing emails, tweeting at political leaders, signing petitions and calling senators. The more actions you take, the better your chances of winning two tickets to the concert.

I could not resist once I knew I had the slightest chance of winning tickets to see Beyoncé, so I joined my fellow citizens in the competition for tickets. I crafted heartwarming emails and signed every petition offered. Halfway through the summer, I found myself speeding through the actions at the last minute, barely reading about the cause I was supporting. So what if my email isn’t the best? Of all the emails, I was sure mine would not be read that closely. Sadly, I do not believe I was the only one thinking this.

I was motivated to do these tasks more by the possibility of going to the concert than by that of promoting change. If the stars were less well-known or if people had to pay, how many people would actually complete these action journeys? While I learned new information — for example, 58 million children do not receive a basic primary education — I was doing it for Beyoncé, not for the world.

Helping people learn about issues in the world and getting them to discuss it on social media by bribing them with the possibility of a free concert seems like a great idea. But I don’t think the average competitor was that engaged with the issues Global Citizen is fighting. I’m sure the concert will be great, but if I had won a ticket, I would have felt unfulfilled. What did I actually do besides the action journeys? How helpful was my tweet? These “actions” are not as attention-grabbing as staging a protest at the state capital or as impactful as sending school supplies to kids in developing countries.

There are people out there who think and are proud that their “clicking” is saving the world. Nine percent of Americans see online activities as the most helpful way to do service. As Malcolm Gladwell states in his New Yorker piece “Small Change,” these people are the same ones who think a “Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”

Social media campaigns do not produce the results that active engagement in a cause can. I have canvassed for political campaigns and seen the difference between door-to-door canvassing and phone canvassing in recruiting volunteers. A connection to a cause is very important in motivating people to act on it. Some may have a personal connection to it. For those who don’t, seeing a picture of a homeless woman on the street on Facebook will not be as successful in creating lasting engagement as inviting a friend to visit a homeless shelter. Even if the picture stirs an initial response from an audience, the likelihood of continued support is low.

With the popularity Global Citizen has, it needs to expand their platform from being an awareness group. The end result of the campaign is unclear. Participants write letters and retweet tweets in order to get leaders to help fund health care in developing countries, but that should not be enough. Global Citizen should expect us to do more than just press a button. By not doing so, the organization fails to acknowledge the ways in which we can help other than through a computer screen.

While many social media campaigns have raised plenty of awareness about the world’s issues, the duration of the promotion is short. For instance, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a fun way for friends to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But this social media trend quickly turned into a fad rather than a way to raise money for ALS. Studies show that most of the participants did not even donate. Using social media may be an easier way to earn support for a cause, but ending poverty is going to take more than just a few retweets.

Maya Lennon ’18 always wants a Blue Room muffin.