From Sit-Ins to Facebook Groups: The Internet and Activism

The other day I logged onto Facebook and was greeted by the red notification flag informing me of an invitation to join a group page. One invitation struck me in particular. Fellow Duke students had created a group with the purpose of expressing dissatisfaction with how well the administration listens to and acts on the voices of its students. There were no specific evidence presented regarding the claims nor was there indication of any planned action to address the issues. The language was persuasive, but what’s going to happen if I agree? What would happen if I don’t? Would I get in trouble or would nothing come of it? It’s just a Facebook group afterall. The beauty of the Internet is that I can express my opinions without fear of getting in trouble, especially when those opinions are part of a larger group’s. What results are really to be gotten by joining a Facebook group?

The Facebook group invitation fit in nicely with the topic of class discussion for the week: social media as a tool for activism. Is the Internet as effective in producing social change as more physical forms of activism such as protests, sit-ins, and rallies? Sure the Internet serves as a way to communicate and send information quickly and thus has the potential to recruit more supporters of a cause. But my response to the Facebook group forces me to consider the negative impact of social media. As a Duke student, I absolutely want the administration to hear and respond to my voice, but will joining a Facebook group solve the problem? I often receive invitations to support various causes on Facebook, but even if I join them, how invested in the issue am I? And how willing am I to take action in addressing that issue?

Not really. True, these networking opportunities are good at raising awareness that issues exist and often recruit a large amount of support that there needs to be something more done to address the issue. But being able to agree with an opinion on the Internet decreases the accountability by which the individual is held to those expressed views. In Malcom Gladwell’s Small Change article, he defines activist tactics that require physical participation such as sit-ins and protests as high-risk activism. Faces are linked with views and, when participating in sometimes illegal acts, there is risk for imprisonment or violence, as was the case in civil rights movements. When expressing views over the Internet, such as in the large Facebook group I was invited to, it’s unlikely all individuals will suffer negative consequences and if there are, it’s much easier to back out of those opinions. If social change takes time, there must be a large number of supporters deeply invested in taking necessary actions to produce that change. Even if I joined that Facebook group, I’m not anymore willing to take action on the issue. At least for me, the Internet is an impersonal medium that, when used to connect individuals to a social change issue, provides only a weak tie to both the issue and other supporters of that issue.

So are individuals who use social media wasting time? Not necessarily. It’s obvious the Internet is a useful way to connect individuals to one another and most people today have become dependent on the Internet. Email and Internet access are available on phones. Newspaper articles are now posted online. I have made getting on the Internet part of my morning routine. In terms of the usefulness of Internet technology in social movement settings, there is a place. The Internet can be used as a tool to raise awareness for issues and connect individuals to the need for social change quickly. The Internet allows for the voices and different perspectives of many to be heard. But the Internet doesn’t accomplish what traditional “high-risk” activist strategies do. Face-to-face communication and collaboration is effective in promoting social change. Just look at advances made in the civil rights movement. The issue now is, as our society adapts and technology advances, how do we use technology to our advantage in social change goals? How do we apply the model of in-person activist strategies to online strategies, and is it possible?

I’m not convinced the strategies we are using now, such as Facebook group invites and blogs, are that effective in producing social change movements alone. Maybe with time, these strategies will be. But the amount of information I receive regarding social causes on the Internet is too overwhelming for me to become deeply involved in any one issue or even know which issues are most pressing. As for now, I think I’ll just leave my response to the group invitation pending.


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