While I write this article, we are in June 2018. I feel that it is about time for an old activist like myself to chime in about the phenomenon of Internet Activism, also known as Clicktivism, Slacktivism and Hashtagtivism depending on who writes about it.
Let’s first try to get some context to the social activism. When I was a high school student, in the Italian 70’s, we had the so-called Years of Lead. The police were using tanks and armoured vehicles to kill students and workers during the demonstrations by running over them, causing our violent response in many occasions driving the country on the brink of civil war by the end of the 70’s, when from all sides groups and police forces were shooting at each other with deaths on all sides.
Back then, being an activist had a definite meaning, no matters on what side one was. Being socially active implied leafleting, putting up posters, becoming an active organiser of public events and marches, setting up demonstrations, occupying schools and so on. It was a very social experience, with so many meetings every day, with real people that were your friends as well. Being socially active meant a fully immersive experience made of pizza, movies, meetings and demonstrations. We did achieve a lot paying a hefty price on all involved sides, but we are still proud of what was accomplished. Remember the 150 hours of paid study leave for metal-mechanic workers (right to study), then slowly extended to all categories. The right for the police forces to have a union; the introduction of voted representatives in military forces. The right to assembly and institution of students representatives in collegial bodies in all Italian schools and so many other laws passed because of the people pressure on the state.
Well, that was back in the 70’s in Italy. Actually, it was still true until not long ago, but then, at the beginning of the new millennium, something happened. Electronic mailing lists started to appear on the horizon of social activism. It was not a big thing, mostly to carry on discussions, debates among activists, then petitions began to circulate via email as well. All good: it was a way to extend the collaboration among organisers. But it also was the beginning of a different trend, something that took actual form with a series of new companies launching in 2005 and 2006: Bebo, MySpace, Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. Don’t get me wrong: we had our networking already, like a lot of BBS, Fido-Net and more, based on voluntary hubs and dial-up connections every few hours to sync the boards, and even the first online petition in 1999, but it was nothing compared to what happened with the spreading of Internet availability. We went from a few million users worldwide to billions: that is what I call a game changer.
The foundation of Avaaz in 2007 made the Online Petition system something that inspired the Internet. Online Petitions were something already tested by the UK government (2006) and the Scottish Parliament (1999): even the United States created in 2011 the petition platform “We the People”. But Avaaz had something more: it was independent, not for profit, international, open to everybody.
The growing popularity of social networking and the Hash-Tag technology made Virtual Activism very easy and popular, so this should be a good thing, at least in principle. Let’s look at what changed in the activism that I was involved in back in the 70’s. Well… that’s the thing: it’s almost disappeared. If only a tenth of those that “click” on “Like” would show up in a real demonstration we could really shake the world, but nobody is showing up any longer! The most successful demonstrations ever only count a few thousand participants… pretty useless.
If you wonder why governments let you post that freely against them instead of shooting at you as they did in the 70’s… here’s your answer: they don’t fear virtual turmoil! Virtual activism is not scoring as big as any real activism ever did. And this is why when people demonstrate police are always there to violently disband meaningful demonstrations, and it’s comfortable with so little numbers gathered in real life. Meanwhile, real soldiers are sent to kill real people in proxy wars, and we can see so many clicks and petitions to stop them, but almost nobody is really getting out there confronting the system, and this is the real problem.
Social media and online petitions are a great tool to raise awareness about a problem, but to solve it one should be ready to be active like we were in the 70’s. Otherwise, it’s all so meaningless! Look how Israel feels free to use snipers to kill unarmed civilians guilty of trying to get the world’s attention on the ongoing genocide in Palestine.
The world is all flying the Palestinian flag, but nobody takes any action to force governments to end that genocide, actually in Ireland the police are arresting people waving the Palestinian flag during public events! Same happens for the forgotten Tibet genocide, not to mention US soldiers shooting radioactive bullets in Afghanistan: significant virtual turmoil, no real-life action, so nothing changes.
It’s sad to see how people feel satisfied with just clicking on “Like” or re-sharing a post. It should begin with those virtual actions, not end there! Once you act virtually you are helping to raise awareness, but that is an empty act if nothing tangible follows, and the result is right in front of us.
So, if you have read up to this ending sentence maybe there is hope for you: now stop reading and go out there, do something in real life to make the difference. It’s up to you: act now!