Columns

Montoya ’16: Slacktivism and the politics of virality

By
Opinions Editor
Friday, November 13, 2015

When I was younger, my mother didn’t let me watch the news. “They only report on the tragedies that happen,” she told me, “and I don’t want you to think that the world is a terrible place.”

Indeed, scrolling through headlines online, I am inundated with graphic images of pain, violence and loss. Especially with the increased visibility offered by social media, graphic images have become everyday sights — so common that they seem to have lost some of their impact and ability to inspire action. Rather than being used as tools to bring about change, graphic images today are wielded as tools of virality, viewed and shared more out of a strange sense of voyeuristic compassion and slacktivism than a true desire to better the world.

When considering the history of photojournalism, the Vietnam War comes to mind as one of the first marked instances in which photography truly had the ability to sway public opinion and ignite protests and cries for tangible change in real time. Images like that of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc and of young, naked Kim Phuc Phan Thi running away from a napalm attack on her home showed American viewers the human toll of the war and led to growing disillusionment and anti-war protests in the United States.

Today, similarly graphic images fail to have the same global impact. In early September, an image began to circulate worldwide of three-year-old Aylan, a Syrian refugee who drowned during his attempt to find sanctuary in Europe. The image, which was plastered on the covers of newspapers and shared online on various social media platforms, shows Aylan’s tiny, still body on the Turkish shoreline — a symbol of the heartbreak and struggle experienced by so many fleeing Syrians.

Millions of people saw the image of Aylan’s body, but little has truly changed. There are still around 400,000 refugees in need of resettlement, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Children like Aylan still drown as their families take great risks to reach safety, so what did the “awareness” generated by his photo truly accomplish?

Instead of leading to increased aid for refugees — the people who actually need to be helped — the spread of the photo seems to have led to merely feelings of compassion and charity among those who viewed and shared it. Truly helping Syrian refugees requires more than just sharing a photo online and feeling content at having raised awareness. To facilitate true change in the form of increased areas of resettlement, governments would have to be pressured and anti-immigrant sentiments would have to be addressed.

This same form of viral activism was seen in the “Kony 2012” campaign, which involved young white millennials starting an online movement and claiming that increasing awareness of Joseph Kony — the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda — would lead to his capture. They encouraged people to share images of Kony as if this alone could do more than all the Ugandan and UN efforts that had taken place before. Meant to empower privileged Westerners with the idea that they could play a part in the capture of a war criminal, the campaign oversimplified the political situation in Uganda at the time and perpetuated problematic white-savior models of activism.

It is clear that this slacktivism often isn’t productive, yet it still persists. No major change comes from liking, sharing and clicking on a major global problem. Viral activism no doubt comes from a well-meaning place, but if we hope to make truly tangible change, we must do more than generate awareness of complicated political issues.

There are times when virality is a useful tool for activists, but even these situations are not as simple as sharing an idea or image online and then moving on, the good deed accomplished. We must be aware of including the voices of those for whom we intend to inspire change when participating in such campaigns and be aware of our own privilege as Westerners who are lucky enough to be so comfortable in life that activism is a choice.

The #BlackLivesMatter campaign is a sterling example of this: It was started by black activists and designed to use the virality of social media to combat police brutality and systematic racism. But, admirably, activists followed these initial social media efforts with persistent demonstrations and political action. Tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and sharing images of drowned children are not enough when we are dealing with real lives and real suffering.

If we truly hope to improve those lives, we must move beyond virality and into real world actions. As Dinaw Mengestu wrote in 2012 in response to the “Kony 2012” campaign, “Our best, most human instincts of compassion and generosity, if they are to be meaningful, can’t come from a marketing campaign as simple, as base, as an advertisement for a soft drink that promises you the world for a single sip. If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.”

Rachel Montoya ’16 can be reached at rachel_montoya@brown.edu.