Social media sceptics, eat your words. Back in the summer of 2014, many thought that the infamous Ice Bucket challenge, which took social media by storm with the intention of raising money for ALS awareness, was futile, uncharitable and just plain stupid. A point of view fuelled by the fact that, for many participants, the original charitable message was lost amidst the fun of chucking a bucket of freezing water over themselves. Others simply didn’t see the point – although people doing ridiculous things for charity is hardly a new thing – and I have to confess, I was among them. I was nominated, and never actually bothered to do it. But last week it was announced that the money raised from the Ice Bucket challenge – over $100 million in a 30 day period – had actually funded a significant scientific breakthrough. Scientists have discovered a new gene associated with ALS, which could possibly lead to new treatments. Proof enough, if anyone ever needed any, that social media has the power to achieve good in the world.
This declaration linked into a topic that I’ve been pondering for some time: the issue of Internet activism or, as it’s usually called, clicktivism. Over the past few years, the Internet, and particularly social media, has exploded as a charity platform, allowing users to create and sign petitions relating to causes about which they feel strongly; enabling them to spread awareness about issues and to share ideas across a wide circle of friends that might not usually get involved with charity. The Ice Bucket challenge is a prime example of this: along with its predecessors, including the ‘selfie for breast cancer’, (to which I donated £5) it genuinely does encourage social media users to donate to charity. I had never heard of ALS before the Ice Bucket challenge and, apart from my adoption of a turtle through the WWF, I am not a regular donor to charitable causes, partly due to my status as a full-time student. And there must be many others just like me. These supposedly ridiculous trends actually do make a difference.
Online petitions are another invaluable way of garnering attention about a particular issue. I first started out using change.org, which allows users to create petitions about issues as diverse as the introduction of political and mental health education in schools and the lack of women on British banknotes (all three of which I have signed in the past few years). But now I regularly sign petitions from sites such as Greenpeace, 38 Degrees and Oxfam. A quick read of the petition’s contents; a speedy click of the button and, voila, you’re one of 10,000 people who have signed to support a noble cause. But its rapidity and ease has led to Internet activism being termed ‘slacktivism’. Certainly, the effort involved is nothing compared to the dedication and devotion displayed by many conscientious charity workers around the world – after all, the whole process only takes a few seconds – but are online petitions really as negligent and lazy as its critics like to believe?
Obviously, I’m biased in the sense that I am a regular user of such sites, but I do so for a very specific reason. If Internet activism ever reaches the point that people become less inclined to actually go out and help the sufferers, then maybe the detractors might have a valid argument. But as it is, although the signing of these petitions might incline charity supporters to be complacent about how much they’re actually contributing to these causes, the reality is that not everyone has the time or money to actively support charities. Signing petitions or raising awareness is a valuable contribution to helping suffering individuals or making a stand against institutionalised misogyny or racism (and a myriad of other worthy causes). For someone who aspires to make a tangible difference in the world, every signature counts. After all, surely anything that raises money or awareness of various charitable causes cannot be a negative thing?
Any undesirable results derive from the individual, not the notion of clicktivism itself. I keep receiving emails about different petitions I have signed in the past – everything from the protection of whales in SeaWorld to increased family leave following bereavement – and I frequently feel guilty about not reading continual updates, when all I really want is a quick read-through of my emails. I know friends and acquaintances in the same position and it’s something that’s easy to blame yourself for: am I uncaring, insensitive, perfunctorily engaged? Yes, I might be a little too absorbed in my busy and privileged life, but signing such petitions is, to me at least, a stopgap until I make enough money to regularly donate to charity. Internet activism promotes valuable causes whilst simultaneously egging the average participant onto more involvement and more awareness of the multifarious issues facing the less fortunate across the world. It’s not perfect, of course, but through its tireless efforts, it helps the world to become a little less imperfect.