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My Regarding Humanity co-founder Lina and I have been talking about the effectiveness of “hashtag activism” for a long time now, and every week there is something new to say or learn from. We took the plunge and published where our thinking is this week – though it’s sure to change by next week. (Thanks to Alex Lee and Winter Schneider for their research and writing support!)

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I’m still grappling with whether hashtag activism and “slacktivism” in general are more important for changing perceptions and behaviors of the individuals who participate in them (which is where many marketers and social media guru types look for impact), or if they should be measured based on their effectiveness in terms of resolving the problem that the hashtag is aimed at addressing. I’m guessing if a hashtag does both, that’s when it’s really found the sweet spot. I’m also thinking that in order for it to do both, it probably needs to involve the people who are directly impacted by the issue and/or people who can actually do something about the issue (these could be one and the same in some cases).

Some say that small acts of online activism (and slacktivism) open the door to a greater feeling of individual agency, which then increases political engagement and more meaningful/more active social cause participation in the future. But I wonder if this is true when the social cause is one that does not directly touch upon the life of the person participating. Does engaging in serial online hashtagging along the lines of #bringbackourgirls make an individual more prone to taking on meaningful action at some point? Or does the hashtag engagement need to relate to something more locally addressable (eg., something the individual could directly impact) in order for it to lead to meaningful action? As we note in our article, some research has found that when it comes to global causes, people have very short attention spans and they move on to a new topic once the complexity of the situation is apparent and they understand their individual inability to make any real difference.

I’m curious about how having “skin in the game” impacts on a person’s feeling of agency and on the impact of hashtag activism at both the personal level and at the level of wider social and political change. I wrote something about this a few years ago (Activism vs Slacktivism: It’s about context not tools), and I wonder whether spontaneous hashtags that spring up and help create critical consciousness and form movements and build cohesion within them (a la #iftheygunnedmedown or #myNYPD) are more effective than those created by marketers/advocates with particular engagement goals in mind.

And anyway, what do I mean by “effective?” I suppose it’s all relevant and that, like any tool, a hashtag can be used for ton of different things and maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here. There will be different measures of success with different hashtags – some for branding, some for fundraising and some for deeper social change and political engagement. Maybe my thoughts and feelings about hashtag activism are just reflecting my wider viewpoints on the kinds of change that I find valuable, and those usually doesn’t have much to do with building an organization’s brand…

And in the end, why do I spend time debating the value of hashtags!? Surely that’s a kind of slacktivism in its own right.

Oh, hashtags.

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I read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on new media digital activism in the New Yorker and it made some sense to me at first. I’m as skeptical as the next person, and very tired of the ‘slacktivist’ social media campaigns that I come across in the US. However, I think it’s important to note that the problem isn’t in the tools being used by activists/’slacktivists’. The issue goes deeper, and it’s more about context and culture.

A few things that I’m mulling over are:

1) In a repressive environment, using social media tools to organize is just as dangerous and subversive as using ‘traditional’ ways of organizing. Organizers, activists and sympathizers use a combination of tools to participate and to reach specific goals. It doesn’t matter if the tools are digital or not. What matters is whether or not they are effective in the context where they are being employed. Lina over at Context, Culture and Collaboration has a good post on the use of tools to fit the goals.

2) The level of commitment to a cause is in direct proportion to the level of personal risk. i.e., the more committed you are, the higher the personal risk you are willing to take; the higher the personal risk, the more committed activists likely become. In the US context, unless perhaps you are gay or Muslim [update Aug 2014 — “or Black”], there is not a lot of personal risk in uniting or fighting for a cause, and most of the causes that are social media driven do not create any major personal risk to those who join them. I find a lot of US campaigns to be meaningless or misdirected compared to activism in many other places. US-based ‘activism’ campaigns are often more about cause marketing or branding an organization or collecting emails than they are about changing a serious social issue at home or abroad. This is not the fault of the social media tools or of ‘digital activism’, it’s a reflection of US culture, our current values, the organizers behind the causes, and the sociopolitical moment we are living in.

3) Some of the digital media evangelists in the US and in the US media don’t understand enough about grassroots organizing or the sociopolitical contexts in other places to see beneath the social media tools to the networks of engaged, involved people and the broader movements happening off-line. They see social media use and think it’s the core of a movement when in fact it is probably just the only piece of it that they have access to at the global level; it’s the shark’s fin. This comment from Esra’a really got me thinking about that.

When a t-shirt can get you in trouble

When I lived in El Salvador in the early 1990’s, (eg., before social media) political oppression was heavy. During the war, you could get arrested, tortured, or disappeared for something as simple as wearing a political t-shirt; criticizing someone from the ruling political party (ARENA); owning a cassette of Mercedes Sosa, Los Guaraguao, or Silvio Rodriguez; reading a book of poetry by Roque Dalton; or merely gathering in a group or having a meeting. That didn’t stop people from organizing though, both in hierarchical ways and loose networked ways.

In 1994, El Salvador held its first elections since the signing of the Peace Accords. It was the first time that the guerrilla group, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) was allowed to participate as a political party. It was a hopeful yet dangerous time. Only the bravest came out publicly to show their support for the FMLN, the past 14 years of repression still fresh in everyone’s minds. There were political assassinations of opposition candidates taking place, fears of widespread fraud, concerns from voters that their votes would not really be secret. ARENA had used every media channel it owned (all of them) to warn foreigners that any ‘interference’ in local political issues would get them deported.

I was working with an international organization that was hosting a group of Ecumenical Elections Observers.  One day, as part of the orientation program, I took a delegation of the observers to the office of the FMLN to meet with the head of the party, Facundo Guardado. (We had met with leaders from ARENA earlier in the week.) Facundo gave us all FLMN t-shirts.

That afternoon, coming home from work, I was walking down the alley way a couple blocks from my house, the t-shirt in my bag. I heard a couple of motorcycles come up behind me and the familiar ‘ch ch, sssss ssssss, mamacita‘. I was alone in the alleyway, so I quickened my pace to reach the little open area where the Barrio women would sit for a minute to catch their breath when coming back from the market with their heavy baskets and the older men would gather to play checkers under the trees in the afternoons. Before I could get there, one of the men pulled his motorcycle up in front of me and the other came up on my left side, cornering me. I saw that these were not just men harassing me, they were in military police uniforms and I got nervous.

They asked for my passport.

‘I don’t have my passport with me. I don’t carry it because I’m afraid it will get stolen.’

They didn’t like that answer. ‘Do you think we can go to your country and walk around without papers? No, we can’t, we’d be deported. Why do you think you can do that here?’

‘Let me look for my driver’s license. I’m sure it must be in my bag. Is that OK?’ They continued to scold me angrily.

I started digging around in my bag to try to find my local driver’s license but failed because my bag was so full of stuff. I was afraid that they were going to see the t-shirt which would lead to a lot of questions and make it look like I was getting involved in internal politics.

My neighbors started popping their heads out of their doorways and windows and watching as the military police questioned the gringa who lived in the Barrio. Just as I was going to be observing and standing witness to their upcoming elections, so they were observing and standing witness for me while I was being questioned by the authorities. Cautiously, one of them said in a respectful voice loud enough to reach the policemen ‘Ella es de aqui.’ She’s from here. Another one agreed. ‘Sí, ella vive aquí.’ The police ignored them and continued to question me. More and more people began standing around to watch from a distance.

My heart was beating loud and fast. The afternoon sun was hot. I started carefully removing things from my bag and placing them on the dirt road… the soda I was bringing home for my husband… my notebook… my sweater… hoping to make some space in my bag to find the driver’s license without the t-shirt coming out. I had no idea what was going to happen if I didn’t find my license. What if they took my bag and searched it and found that t-shirt? Would they seriously arrest me? Would I be deported?

After what seemed like hours, I saw my mother-in-law running towards us, carrying my son. Someone had alerted her that I was in trouble. Her eyes flashed like they did when she was worried, upset or angry. She was on fire. ‘Buenas tardes, oficiales. What’s the problem? What’s happening? Uh hunh, she is my daughter. My daughter-in-law. This is her son. She lives here with us, here in the Barrio.’

‘Sí, es verdad,’ it’s true, several of the neighbors called out. While they were speaking, I finally found my license. It had gotten caught up between the pages of my notebook. I showed the police and they lectured us all about the importance of carrying papers, got on their motorcycles and rode off. For a few days after the incident I felt nervous that they would follow me in the alleyway again, or find me someplace else and continue their questions, out of sight of the neighbors and far from my brave mother-in-law.

So what does that have to do with activism and ‘slacktivism’?

The simplest of things can get you in serious trouble in a repressive environment. Not carrying your identification. Listening to revolutionary songs. Discussing politics. Reading a book by someone who critiques the government. Wearing a political t-shirt. Standing on a street corner to watch a protest.

Would any of that be seen as subversive in the US? As deeply significant and meaningful? No. Most of us don’t have to carry identification. Teenagers listen to Bob Marley without even knowing what the songs are about. We critique politics openly all the time. Our kids read Marx in school. We make fun of our political leaders on TV and billboards and t-shirts. We join political campaigns and publicly demonstrate who we are voting for. These activities are all very low risk at this time in the US cultural and sociopolitical environment. Engaging in activism in the US, wearing t-shirts, joining on-line groups and the like is often seen as slacktivism because these are very easy things to do, don’t require a lot of effort or personal risk. We are not doing a great job of engaging people in real debates in the US, and I worry about some of the changes happening now in the US (think: Tea Party), but it’s hard to deny that we do enjoy an amount of freedom of expression that’s difficult to come by in many other places.

In 1994 in El Salvador, people were not using social media to organize. But if they had been, it would have been every bit as risky as wearing or owning an FMLN t-shirt and just as meaningful. Simply identifying with a cause was subversive, much more so if you actually spoke out or identified yourself publicly. Wearing a political t-shirt in that type of environment is not ‘slacktivism’. If social media had been around then, engaging in the movement digitally would have been dangerous and probably very effective considering both the hierarchical structure of the armed opposition and the networked structure of sympathizers across the country, the region, and the world. Activism is not about the tools, it’s about the movement, the cause, the social change, the level of commitment and the potential danger and risk that people place themselves in when publicly identifying with a cause and fighting for what they believe in. That is what gets people heart and soul into a movement, regardless of the tools that they are using.

I think there is a risk of a US-centric critique of all digital activism as ‘slacktivism’, when that is not always the case. Should we call out the US media and those people who are hyping up social media as the key factor in social and opposition movements such as recent ones in Iran or Moldova? Yes. Should we in the US take a closer look at and question what’s behind our shallowness and cultural propensity towards ‘slacktivism?’ Definitely.

But we should also be careful about projecting our weaknesses and cultural frameworks on all uses of social media tools in activism.

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