Social media is the 24/7, global free-for-all that highlights the very best and the absolute worst of humanity. It is life distilled, thoughts condensed and short bursts of genius, outrage and unity (pick your choice, it is all there). Anyone who doubts the influence and appeal of social media should be promptly silenced when noting the fact that social media has swiftly overtaken porn as top activity on the internet.

We the people

Every day we collectively define the meaning of social media and its significance. A worldwide social experiment in which we all are the willing guinea pigs, social media is imbued with possibility. Just like selfies, social media activism is an organic offshoot of the social media phenomenon. While selfies are usually deemed frivolous, social media activism has been often considered, rather contentiously, a serious development in the age of the internet. At the forefront of the social media phenomenon, the latest studies have revealed that Facebook tops the list of social media platforms with 1.07 billion monthly active users. While Twitter trails behind YouTube and Google+ with 271 million monthly active users.

What difference, if any, do these hashtags actually make in the course of history? We discuss.

Both renowned for their ability to connect the world, Facebook and Twitter are often cited as potential springboards for positive social change and a new breed of social activism often dubbed “armchair activism”. With millions of “friends” and “followers” around the world and the unquestioned deference to the power of the collective huddling behind a shared hashtag, surely the possibility of a better world for all is more likely than ever? The logic being, if even a fraction of the multitudes of users used their “voice” for good, then surely world leaders and influencers would be forced to listen and respond. Not too long ago a person would be labelled an activist if they were actively involved in advocating or opposing a cause or issue. Today, social media has opened up the possibility for a new breed of activism. It is now easier than ever to stand your ground and draw your line in the sand with the aid of a 140-character tweet or a snappy Facebook update.

Activism for the selfie generation?

Whereas once you might have had to attend rallies, sit-ins etc. to show your allegiance, today, an appropriately timed retweet will do. Social media activism, just like the internet itself, is all-inclusive. This means that the number of “activists” (self-proclaimed or not, misguided or not) has never been higher or more visible. Surely this counts for something? Armchair activism factsheet: • As of the May this year, #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted 3.3 million times. • Out of the one million-plus people who had signed the “Save Darfur” campaign on Facebook, less than 3000 people have actually donated money. Only raising approximately $90,000 over three years, which is a pitiful statistic compared to the wider Darfur campaign, which raised more than $1m in 2008 alone.

• Despite much of the media dubbing the recent unrest in Iran a “Twitter Revolution” only 20,000 people in Iran in 2009 used Twitter. This equates to 0, 00025% of the population. Social media activism, pejoratively known as “slacktivism”, is a new phenomenon that capitalizes on an old truth: humans are ultimately lazy and vain. If given the chance, people are more inclined to do good if there is an audience to applaud their virtue. More so, if this can be done with the minimal effort involved in posting a tweet or liking a Facebook status. While this is not to say that people don’t care about social issues, of course they do, didn’t you see how many times they retweeted that Gandhi quote about change? It is a question about how much they actually care. Enough to donate money or often equally precious time or just enough to tweet about the issue with a few caps lock hashtags thrown in for emphasis?

The wins and woes of social media activism

Never before have world issues been more vigorously debated, prior to the dawn of social media, there was an imbalance: people had mass access to information about world events (i.e. newspapers, magazines and television) but very few opportunities to genuinely engage with that information. Today, with the aid of social media, people across the globe are engaging with issues that would formerly be deemed remote and all but removed from their experience. The “Stop Kony” social media frenzy is case and point.

Created by an American charity, Invisible Children, Inc., “Kony 2012” was a short film created to spur awareness about the heinous acts of leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Joseph Kony. Fraught with controversy and perhaps misguided, the campaign perfectly highlights the wins and the woes of social media activism. In the age of the internet, you can feel equal outrage from New York to Kampala. As people adopt the entire world as their scope of interest, on reflection, it comes as no surprise that the film has received more than 100 million views on YouTube. Dubbed the “most viral video in history” many Ugandans protested at the screening of the films.

Expecting to see a real depiction of the surreal atrocities that they experienced, the film was decidedly self-indulgent and indicative of deep-rooted ethnocentrism. However, that didn’t seem to impact the popularity of the campaign as most of the “supporters” who retweeted #stopKony didn’t seem to bother to watch the 30 minute film.

Did You Know? At the height of the campaign, the hashtag #kerrystopkony was being sent every 19 seconds.

Therein lies the problem with social media activism, it doesn’t require authentic commitment. Whereas old-school activists by definition, must nail themselves to the proverbial cross, hashtag activists by definition (however variable), are never tested. The lack of authentic commitment is negatively correlated with the progress of the adopted cause. The less real commitment required the more likely the cause is to fizzle out after the social media interest has shifted to another “bleeding hearts” cause.

History has shown that social progress occurs because of unyielding, authentic commitment in spite of circumstance. They say that you make the iron hot my striking it; just the same, social progress occurs not because the world is somehow ready, but rather because committed individuals have decided that change is simply not optional.

Only time will tell if the revolution will be retweeted

Shonda Rhimes, the triple-threat American screenwriter, director and producer recently said: “A hashtag is not a movement.” This might come as a surprise given that much of the popularity of her latest success; “The Fixer” (also known as “Scandal”) can be attributed to the burgeoning power of Twitter, with masses across the globe live-tweeting while catching the latest instalment of her show. Television pundits have dubbed “The Fixer” as “the house that Twitter built”. Evidently, Rhimes sees no contradiction in her damnation of the so-called “hashtag movement”. Perhaps this is telling, while hashtags might be great for entertainment purposes, at the end of the day a hashtag, like Rhimes says, it is “you sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favourite shows”.

Despite the critics, we will only be able to accurately assess the impact of social media activism with the passing of time. The latent tendency is to assume that every generation is markedly worse than the previous. Yet it is hard to even compare the current social media generation with any other generation because the infinite landscape of the internet as we know it today is largely unchartered territory. However, that being said, it is hoped that in our future assessment of the so-called rise of social media activism we do not overlook the efforts of the real people living in often dire circumstance, who without much, and usually without a smart phone, challenge, confront and sometimes change the world as we know it. Their story is often too long and complicated to be captured in a tweet, but then again, the best stories always are.