There may be a little more to online activism than meets the eye. While it is hard to see how a single click can have any real impact, there is evidence to show that when personal influence meets the strength of a network, the results are impressive.
Rarely does a day go by without an online campaign or movement demanding our attention and support. Several recent examples come to mind. There’s the protest against the construction of a new mall in Bangalore and the resulting displacement of people from their homes. There are others aimed at conserving a plot of greenery in the city, exhorting the government to act in order to protect women from atrocities, or squashing Article 66A. So the question then arises: does an individual’s online alignment with a cause have any real impact? In today’s times, it is easy for anybody to promote and push a cause through social media but do these actions translate into concrete results for the campaign in question?
Many people seem to think not. In a survey conducted in the US by the Georgetown Center for Social Impact Communication, 47% of people said they receive too many messages about causes out there. About 30% felt supporting global causes online doesn’t make much of a difference and 48% felt that hitting a “like” button on Facebook in support of a cause doesn’t mean anything. Typically, we measure the success of a campaign by looking at the amount of money raised through it. We also recognise physical presence or volunteer time as another indicator of campaign success. But what does a click of an ‘I support this cause’ button really mean? If you “like” a cause on Facebook, how deep is your involvement?
One recent case study worth examining is Anna Hazare’s Anti-Corruption movement, a campaign that mobilised large numbers of people in India. Social media worked as an echo chamber and a microphone in this instance – highlighting the concerns of citizens and amplifying these across the web. Hazare’s team reached out to people around the country via Facebook and Twitter and urged them to take a stand in support of the Lokpal Bill. People who liked, tweeted or forwarded the message all played a role in getting the word out. Physical presence or participation was less of an issue in this case as online support generated enough momentum to get huge groups of people together to denounce the status quo and demand change. Ultimately, this created substantial pressure on the government and forced it to pass one version of the bill.
The future of the movement may be in question but the point is that its organisers did accomplish what they originally set out to do, which was to rally the entire country behind their cause. Each ‘like’ helped to strengthen and bolster the campaign, yielding record levels of public support and involvement. Other smaller and less prominent movements may have a similar impact, even if on a much reduced scale.
Invariably, every individual who takes a stand or supports a cause online has a degree of influence, which can be as valuable as more tangible contributions. When I “support”or “like” an online petition, I may not actually give money or show up on the ground to volunteer. However, what I do offer is the strength of my network, consisting of like-minded individuals who may also feel connected to the petition at some level. They, in turn, may express support and further spread the word, or they may be moved to act and to be more closely associated with the cause.
A friend who, over the last few years, has been attempting to fund the education of his househeld help’s daughter by leveraging his online network, recently realised the full power of this network. This year, the girl was ready to start college and while she had an excellent academic track record, her family could not afford the high tuition fees. My friend posted details of her situation on various social media networks and was soon able to connect with a large number of people willing to help a young and deserving candidate realise her educational goals. Clearly, when the cause in question touches a chord with those in the influencer’s network, the results are impressive.
The value of a click – whether from an armchair idealist or a fiery activist – is hard to assess. But when personal influence combines with an appealing cause, the network will pick it up and propagate it. Along the way, it will touch and draw in members of the target audience and that is where change happens. In the digital age, isolating distinct pockets of a desired mindset and ideology is easier than before. Mobilising and activating these pockets requires individuals within them to step in and reach out to those they have the power to influence and sway.
So, online activism has a slightly different measure of success than what has traditionally been used. The value an online activist contributes can be weighed in terms of the potential of their network to spark change or results. So the next time you see a cause you feel connected to, by all means, click on the ‘like’ button. Yes, it’s easy. Certainly, it doesn’t involve much in the way of physical effort or time. And yet, you could be an important agent of change.