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Archive for the ‘slacktivism’ Category

I had the privilege (no pun intended) of participating in the Art-a-Hack program via ThoughtWorks this past couple of months. Art-a-Hack is a creative space for artists and hackers to get together for 4 Mondays in June and work together on projects that involve art, tech and hacking. There’s no funding involved, just encouragement, support, and a physical place to help you carve out some time out for discovery and exploration.

I was paired up by the organizers with two others (Dmytri and Juan), and we embarked on a project. I had earlier submitted an idea of the core issues that I wanted to explore, and we mind-melded really well to come up with a plan to create something around them.

Here is our press release with links to the final product – WhiteSave.me. You can read our Artist Statement here and follow us on Twitter @whitesave.me. Feedback welcome, and please share if you think it’s worth sharing. Needless to say full responsibility for the project falls with the team, and it does not represent the views of any past, present or future employers or colleagues.

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Announcing WhiteSave.me

WhiteSave.me is a revolutionary new platform that enables White Saviors to deliver privilege to non-Whites whenever and wherever they need it with the simple tap of a finger.

Today’s White guy is increasingly told “check your privilege.” He often asks himself “What am I supposed to do about my privilege? It’s not my fault I was born white! And really, I’m not a bad person!”

Until now, there has been no simple way for a White guy to be proactive in addressing the issue of his privilege. He’s been told that he benefits from biased institutions and that his privilege is related to historically entrenched power structures. He’s told to be an ally but advised to take a back seat and follow the lead from people of color. Unfortunately this is all complex and time consuming, and addressing privilege in this way is hard work.

We need to address the issue of White privilege now however – we can’t wait. Changing attitudes, institutions, policies and structures takes too damn long! What’s more, we can’t expect White men or our current systems to go through deep changes in order to address privilege and inequality at the roots. What we can do is leapfrog over what would normally require decades of grassroots social organizing, education, policy work, and behavior change and put the solution to White privilege directly into White men’s hands so that everyone can get back to enjoying the American dream.

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WhiteSave.me – an innovative solution that enables White men to quickly and easily deliver privilege to the underprivileged, requiring only a few minutes of downtime, at their discretion and convenience.

Though not everyone realizes it, White privilege affects a large number of White people, regardless of their age or political persuasion. White liberals generally agree that they are privileged, but most are simply tired of hearing about it and having to deal with it. Conservative White men believe their privilege is all earned, but most also consider it possible to teach people of color about deep-seated American values and traditions and the notion of personal responsibility. All told, what most White people want is a simple, direct way to address their privilege once and for all. Our research has confirmed that most White people would be willing to spend a few minutes every now and then sharing their privilege, as long as it does not require too much effort.

WhiteSave.me is a revolutionary and innovative way of addressing this issue. (Read Our Story here to learn more about our discovery moments!) We’ve designed a simple web and mobile platform that enables White men to quickly and easily deliver a little bit of their excess privilege to non-Whites, all through a simple and streamlined digital interface. Liberal Whites can assuage guilt and concern about their own privilege with the tap of a finger. Conservatives can feel satisfied that they have passed along good values to non-Whites. Libertarians can prove through direct digital action that tech can resolve complex issues without government intervention and via the free market. And non-White people of any economic status, all over the world, will benefit from immediate access to White privilege directly through their devices. Everyone wins – with no messy disruption of the status quo!

How it Works

Visit our “how it works” page for more information, or simply “try it now” and your first privilege delivery session is on us! Our patented Facial Color Recognition Algorithm (™) will determine whether you qualify as a White Savior, based on your skin color. (Alternatively it will classify you as a non-White ‘Savee’). Once we determine your Whiteness, you’ll be automatically connected via live video with a Savee who is lacking in White privilege so that you can share some of your good sense and privileged counsel with him or her, or periodically alleviate your guilt by offering advice and a one-off session of helping someone who is less privileged.

Our smart business model guarantees WhiteSave.me will be around for as long as it’s needed, and that we can continue innovating with technology to iterate new solutions as technology advances. WhiteSave.me is free for White Saviors to deliver privilege, and non-Whites can choose from our Third World Freemium Model (free), our Basic Model ($9/month), or our Premium Model ($29/month). To generate additional revenue, our scientific analysis of non-White user data will enable us to place targeted advertisements that allow investors and partners to extract value from the Base of the Pyramid. Non-Profit partners are encouraged to engage WhiteSave.me as their tech partner for funding proposals, thereby appearing innovative and guaranteeing successful grant revenue.

See our FAQs for additional information and check out our Success Stories for more on how WhiteSave.me, in just its first few months, has helped thousands to deliver privilege all over the world.

Try It Now and you’ll be immediately on your way to delivering privilege through our quick and easy digital solution!

Contact help@whitesave.me for more information. And please help us spread the word. Addressing the issue of White privilege has never been so easy!

 

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Our August Technology Salon in New York City (TSNYC) was a stimulating and deep discussion on whether ‘girl advertising’ detracts from girls empowerment. The topic surfaced after a Facebook conversation about the rise in commercials about girls and women’s empowerment such as Always’ “Like a Girl,” Verizon’s “Inspire her Mind,” and Pantene’s “Stop Saying Sorry.” There are mixed feelings about what these ads accomplish for girls and women, and whether their commercially driven motivations are actually helping to achieve gains for girls in the US and elsewhere.

Some of the key points raised at the Salon included:

Participatory media vs slick, overproduced ads. When it’s participatory media with children and youth making choices about what is being said, shot and edited, it’s one thing. It feels authentic, said one Salon participant. “But the current spate of ads tend to show a very ‘produced’ girl, wearing make-up, feeding into stereotypes about beauty, talking to a screen and selling a product or a brand.” These ads may feel inspiring to people watching, but are they actually ‘empowering?’ The underlying message of many of these ads for girls is still often sex, beauty and/or sexual attractiveness.

Surface rather than deeper change. One discussant pointed out that companies making these empowering girl ads on the one hand are making misogynist NFL ads on the other. If a company really wants to do something for girls, it should be a holistic effort that permeates all its advertising, she felt, not just a slick ad for girls and business as usual with everything else. Making girls feel better about themselves is one thing, but it’s not enough. Girls may say they prefer ‘Goldiblox’ to ‘Barbie’ but the toys are still plastic consumables, and they are still pink, as one participant noted. “Girls need to build confidence at a deeper level,” said a youth participant. “Rather than just providing a one-way ticket to solving a simple problem, we need to go deeper, because the problem does not have just a single cause.” In addition, as other participants called out, much of the change being pushed by ads is shallow change, when what is really needed is systemic change. “Have you really addressed structural injustices and inequities with these one-off actions and campaigns? Do these simple narratives really help? Or are they a distraction?”

Are we conflating empowerment and consumerism? These girl-focused ads encourage girls that we work with to spend money that they don’t have, commented one Salon participant. Are we supporting girls’ assimilation into corporate consumerism or are we trying to change the status quo for girls who have been traditionally left out? “Girls we work with have issues with lack of access to housing, education, a living wage. These ads encourage them to spend money that goes back to corporations, and we don’t know what the corporations are doing with it. Are they supporting militarization of the police? Are they lobbying to cut sex education or planned parenthood funding?” Often the topics addressed in these ads, she noted, are the tip of the iceberg. “We see ads about teen pregnancy, but we don’t see work that addresses its underlying causes.” Addressing underlying causes, many in the room felt, would be the truly empowering work.

Higher visibility of girls’ issues is unintentionally causing problems. The increased presence of girls in the media and in NGO advocacy campaigns was initially very helpful, but some commented that it is becoming a problem. “Donors think that there is a higher level of investment in programs that directly impact on girls, which is not necessarily the case. Often the investment is made in branding or social media rather than in concrete programming that supports girls with real assets and skills.” This has meant that some donors are reluctant to fund programs for girls, because they think the topic is over-saturated. In reality, there is a lot of talk and media but not enough on-the-ground support.

Being a girl in 2014…. In addition to the funding challenges, some research has shown that in the US, girls as young as 7 and 8 feel that they “cannot drop the ball on anything now.” The empowering visions of girls can make them feel that they are expected to do and be everything, and to solve all the world’s problems on top of it all. At the same time, on social media such as Facebook research shows that girls tend to downplay their intelligence and up-play their fun and sexiness, because media bombards them with messages that on top of being successful at everything, they are also supposed to be cute, carefree, and sexy.

What about boys and men? The higher visibility around girls can lead to a marginalization of boys and men from gender work, commented some Salon participants, as it sets up a boy vs girl dynamic. Though for advertising, binaries tend to work, in the wider scheme of things, these issues are very complex and binaries are not helpful. If we are looking for change an empowerment, boys and men also need to be part of the equation and gender should be a more holistic approach, not only focused on girls. “Working with both boys and girls is more empowering for everyone,” said one participant. When boys feel threatened by girls it just creates more conflict. “We need to empower boys by teaching them about girls and gender dynamics,” because both boys and girls are affected by gender stereotypes.

Ads by their very nature simplify complex issues. Ads are simplified because of how they need to be packaged, especially now in the day of social media, as one of the youth Salon participants pointed out. “People take a simplified message and create their own meaning out of it, without really understanding the complexities. Then they share the ad around and feel like they’ve done their part. They think an ad is fully informing them and this is dangerous. These ads don’t really feel empowering for me, it’s just an upswing in ads for teenaged girls and in media targeted at my age group. The ads are just one more thing that’s shared on Facebook. So it’s like someone else packages ideas for you, you share them, and you move on.” Another participant agreed, yet added that ads can open the door to a conversation about something larger that can be followed with more nuanced discussions.

Ads are ads. They are not CSR. Companies are not really interested in empowering girls with these ads, pointed out one participant. These are not Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ads; they are marketing ads. Another participant added that “many of these campaigns are run by very smart, high-powered women. They do want to see high-powered versions of girls, and they also want to sell their products or their brands.” The income from the ads does not go into social programs; it’s revenue, noted another participant. CSR managers then have the job of advocating internally so that some of the revenue does go towards these types of causes, but it’s not a given. CSR staff work to encourage corporate leadership to allocate some of the funding into programs that have an impact on girls’ lives. Consumers should also be doing their homework and finding out what is happening with different campaigns. Companies want to make employees, customers, and investors/their boards happy. Consumers should pressure corporations to do more than just ads, and to do something that reaches farther. Corporate mandates are totally separate from Foundation mandates, as one participant pointed out. “It’s up to people like us who care about these issues to bridge the gap, to have these conversations in the board room, with management and leadership, with PR staff.” “How can we increase transparency about what these companies invest in,” asked one participant. This is important not only for CSR budgets and ‘girl issues’ but for companies overall.

Starting with the delivery system is a problem. Rather than starting with a solution – an ad, a technology, a delivery system – we should start by picking the group or population where we want to make a difference and then decide what is the best way to go about it, commented one Salon participant. “What does success look like for girls? What do girls themselves what to do, to be? Empower is a vague word. If you substituted ‘farmer’ for ‘girl’ you’d never get away with some of the mystical pronouncements that we hear now about girls. Do you ever hear people saying ‘Ah, farmers… I just feel so alive and so inspired when I meet them! They can change the world!’ Probably not. And much of the rhetoric around girls is just inspiring language that doesn’t actually help girls to achieve their goals. We’ve swallowed the language of the current delivery system. We now measure success in terms of retweets, likes, social media campaigns and putting out manuals and guides. We need to push back and ensure that the money goes to girl programs on the ground.”

Using media for behavior change is a science. Others, however, felt that there was a role for behavior change communication (BCC) done in a scientific way and with solid measurement of impact. Activism and advocacy are different approaches than behavior change, commented a participant. Likes and tweets can be measures of activism, awareness and advocacy. But for behavior change, we need to go deeper. Well-targeted behavior change communication starts with strong, solid research into what drives behavior. There are different categories – knowledge is the first one. But most times, it’s not lack of knowledge that prevents people from changing behavior. More often, it’s attitudes, social norms, and lack of social support and self-efficacy. A well-defined campaign should isolate what will make change and the communication piece should speak to that very specific change. It’s also critical to understand the audience and what will move them to action – for some girls it will be a strong aspirational role model, for others it will be real-life women and girls. Formative research helps us understand what will work with a particular audience.

How are we measuring impact? People are measuring the number of tweets from the general public and calling it impact, rather than measuring indicators of real change for girls themselves. “Attention is being placed on media impressions, tweets, hashtags,” said one discussant. “We measure hollow metrics about the giver rather than measuring the impact on the ground, on the lives of the people we say we are supporting or helping.” She went on to cite some very well known campaigns where the only impact reports were media hits, but no available reports track what happened with funds raised, or with ‘awareness’ and how it translated into actual change. “Is it enough to show women in empowering ads,” asked one participant. “There is a disconnect between advocacy and messaging and measuring impact,” said another person. Within organizations, some digital teams are very good at showcasing to management how many Facebook likes and tweets they get, and this distracts leadership from looking at more impactful efforts on the ground. It allows these shallow campaigns to take funding away from the more solid programmatic efforts that work directly with girls and their families and communities to address underlying causes, and to build skills and assets and enabling environments for girls to succeed.

Equality vs liberation. Boiling complicated intersectional analyses down to an ad that can only carry a single message is complicated and having an equal number of male and female board members does nothing for women who are not operating at these high levels, said one participant. “I have so much I want to say about all this!” she added. “Where are the transformational campaigns? None of our organizations or brands or corporations has enough money individually to do a campaign that would really create structural, systemic change. Even the Ms. Endowment has only $35 million and it’s not enough. We are all competing in the market. How can we collaborate and converse with one another to do something bigger and better. How can we work together to really shift things? What if we came together and only took money from corporations that did something like have a certain percentage of women on the board plus ads that show positive images plus funnel funding into good programs on the ground? How can we hold companies accountable? How are we measuring success?” Another person commented “Many corporations feel that we are lucky to have their money.” She wondered how we can build strength in our numbers and work together as a more solid front.

It’s not one or the other…. In closing, one participant pointed out that there were multiple conversations happening in the room, because those of us working on gender and girl issues are fighting the good fight on multiple fronts. “Work on the ground is one thing. Work at the global policy/advocacy level is something else. And then there is work with the private sector and the public as well,” she said. “We all have different strengths. How can we connect in more meaningful discussions on it all? How can we flag issues that need consideration so that we are all contributing to a wider goal?” Further conversation and joint work could help to address some of the challenges that those in the room are facing. Many participants wished for a follow up conversation to take the ideas a step further, and the topic of engaging boys and men was brought up as something that needs more work.

So, do girl ads detract from girls’ empowerment? According to the majority of Salon participants, yes, in many cases they do. But there is potential to integrate these kinds of ads into wider, more effective efforts to push for systemic change that involves both boys and girls, works at various levels, and demands greater corporate accountability and better measurement of results.

What should advertisers do, then? [Adding this today (Aug 26) after a request for some recommendations for advertisers]

  1. Be consistent. Look inwardly. Don’t be all ‘girl empowering’ on the one hand and then be all misogynist on the other hand with everything else that you do.
  2. If you’re making revenue from girl empowerment ads, then do something with the money that actually supports programming that is proven (evidence-based) to make a real difference to girls in their daily lives or support policy work that help girls advance.
  3. If you’re really about girls’ empowerment and want to work on behavior changes that benefit girls at a widespread level, then look at some of the behavior change science approaches that can help you to plan campaigns that get people to move beyond a) feeling inspired and b) gaining knowledge to c) actually acting and changing their behavior….
  4. A combined effort that works at multiple levels (ads that are well researched and directed, policy changes that support girls and women, and work on the ground that provides girls with skills and helps them build assets) would be a better way to approach girls’ empowerment, if indeed advertisers do want to help empower girls.
  5. Stop commodifying everything and putting more pressure on girls and women to be and do everything. Use some of the power and expertise of creating and motivating people through brands and advertising to support social change that has nothing to do with buying more stuff.

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For more background reading, see our crowdsourced list of ‘girl ads’ and commentary about girl ads.

Thanks to those who contributed to the Salon topic idea and preparation (especially Eva Kaplan, Karen Cirillo, Clare Ramirez-Raftree, Lina Srivastava and Greta Knutzen) and to ThoughtWorks for their generous hosting!

If you’d like to attend a future Salon in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Toronto/ Ottawa or Nairobi, sign up here to get on our email list!

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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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Continue reading on Storify…

Amanda’s workshop was educational, thought-provoking, well-researched and participatory. The youth who participated in the workshop were from Bangladesh, Liberia, Haiti and across the US. They were incredibly savvy and insightful in their thoughts, analysis and comments. I learned a lot about ethical advocacy as well as about what makes a campaign or initiative interesting for well-informed, globally engaged young activists.

The rest of the workshop is captured here, including my favorite part:

The advocacy Do’s and Don’ts that participants generated during group work:

And a key take-away:

Summary of the full workshop.

Amanda’s ebook “Beyond Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness and Activism in the Internet Age.

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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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