By Zafar Shayan
The role of the internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in promoting effective civic activism has been a major topic of debate in the Social Sciences. Indeed, it is argued that civic activities organized through social media have played roles in the processes of democratization in various cases around the world. The role of social media in different social movements such as the Arab Spring, the anti-finance and occupy movements in EU and the US, the 2013 Brazilian protests, Gezi protests in Turkey, and different public protests in Mexico are just a few of the cases explored within the scholarly contexts (Castells, 2014).
This article discusses the way citizens organize civic actions and use social media in their collective activities. The question that is sought to be answered here is why some social collective actions are ineffective despite their widespread use of social media and relatively suitable social and political contexts.
Here the article will argue that synchronicity and connectivity between online and offline activism can be a factor that promotes the effectiveness of civic activism. In this sense, it is worth noting that effective civic activity is seen in the extensive participation of people in a collective activity that becomes publicly recognized and increasingly influences public opinion.
Two forms of civic activism: online and offline
Basically, civic activism denotes the process by which private citizens and collectives try to bring about changes to their social lives. Put differently, individuals, groups, or organizations engage in collective actions to change their current situation by way of advocacy, volunteering, signing petitions, protesting, etc. Staveren and Hoeven (2012) define civic activism as “the social norms, organizations and practice, which facilitate greater citizen involvements in public policies and decisions”. Individuals, groups, or organizations who are motivated to effect change, work to concertize such change, and actively take part in social actions as organizers, spokespeople, or contact persons can be deemed as activists. Online activism specifically refers to the utilization of the internet, especially online social network platforms, with the aim of realizing the aims of civic activities.
Civic activities vary in type as well as degree of importance. A civic action can take the form of a basic public awareness campaign or a revolutionary attempt to change the political system of a country. Some collective civic actions can be organized more easily than others, such as public awareness campaigns or efforts to draw public response to an emergency situation. This can be observed, for example, in the ease with which a blood donation campaign was organized on Facebook after a devastating bomb explosion in the capital city of Afghanistan on April 19, 2016. As the number of those wounded in the attack rose to 347, Facebook users started an emergency campaign calling for people to donate blood to assist victims. Illustrating the success of this campaign, one hospital, only a few hours after the attack posted a sign on its wall stating that “there is enough blood. Thanks to those who have come here to donate”. Such blood donation campaigns don’t require an organized meeting of individuals or careful planning on the part of civil society organizations, and it could even be argued that if such campaigns were to be organized and carried out offline, volunteer turnout would suffer. Other civic activities that are executed entirely online can also prove very successful, as illustrated by the viral “ice bucket challenge” that sought to raise awareness of the disease ALS and fund its research.
Yet aside from these success stories other civic activities that strive to bring about larger, systematic change by way of advocacy, anti-corruption protests, or political movements, for example, prove more difficult to pursue through online action alone. In these cases, it is argued that lack of leadership, propensity to diversion, misinformation, and limited access to the internet are the main reasons why these on-line campaigns are inclined to fail or rendered ineffective. Because of this, it is often asserted that traditional forms of off-line activism serve as a complement to online activism.
Firstly, lack of leadership and trust among involved activists is one of the aspects of online activism that makes it vulnerable in terms of effective organization. Civic activism is not something that can be planned by scattered posts or comments on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms. It is clear that initial steps need to be taken by individual activists, groups, or civil society organizations in initiating and giving shape to online campaigns or any social collective actions. Importantly, as Diana (2000) and Ribeiro (1998) found, face-to-face interactions are considered to be more effective and valuable than virtual-only ties when it comes to mobilizing and sustaining social movements (qtd. in Harlow, 2011). Moreover, because of the possibility that and internet user’s online identity does not always coincide with his or her off-line identity, in addition to the existence of anonymous accounts, it is not easy to build trust among those participating in an activity on social media. Considering this, face-to-face meetings establish the leadership of an event and the logistical groundwork for the action function to build trust, and thereby complement on-line activity by reducing the risks of diversion and disorganization.
Secondly, as social media, although not equally, provides space for everyone, the risk of misinformation being spread about a particular civic action is higher than it is in the offline world. This is because individuals with anonymous accounts boasting fake identities, governments, religious radicals, and criminal groups all use online social media platforms to promote their interests and discredit what they may see as threatening. Within this framework, El-Nawawy and Khamis point to the case of the 2009 Iranian protests as illustrative of this type of risk. Here, Iranian government authorities spread misinformation about protestors and the movement they were involved in by way of different internet tools such as blogs and Twitter. The government labeled the protests as anti-Islam and as a conspiracy to disrupt the national unity of Iran, aiming to foment disapproval of the protests among the religious masses of the country. Under such circumstances the protests spread to but a few major cities. Because of a lack of leadership and ineffective offline organization, the protestors failed to counteract the propaganda and attract widespread public support. Nevertheless, Twitter provided the opportunity for Iranian protestors to share their opinions and commence a form of protest against what they saw as an authoritarian government.
Thirdly, limited access to the internet is another issue faced by online activism. According to the UN’s 2015 report on the state of broadband internet, about 43% of the world’s population has regular access to the internet. Indeed, a high percentage of regular internet users are citizens of developed countries, however, the number of regular internet users living in less developed or developing countries is much lower. For instance, there are about 1.9 million regular internet users in Afghanistan, which constitutes only about 5.9% of the country’s population according to the CIA World Factbook (2014). Within these countries, people with higher quality of life and level of education ten to have greater access to the internet. The lower classes of these societies are therefore less likely to participate in online civic actions. Thus, the mobilization of lower or working classes requires practical actions, possibly even realized through door to door communication. Here, the “Movement of Justice for Shukira” in Afghanistan serves as a good example of how online and offline civic activities can be synchronized and connected for greater effect in countries with populations that have limited access to the internet.
“Shukria Tabassum” was a 9 year old girl from the Jaghori district of Ghazni, Afghanistan who was kidnapped and beheaded by local Taliban terrorists in Zabul along with six other individuals from the Hazara community including two women on November 8, 2015. As soon as the news of the incident broke, Facebook users shared the story among their networks and reacted in the virtual space. Then they applied their outrage in the physical world, with a large number of people mobilizing to join a protest in Ghazni and preventing the burial of the victims’ bodies there. Instead the bodies were redirected by thousands of people to the capital of Kabul. In the next step, youth activists, representatives of civil society organizations, and other community influencers planned a public protest the next day in Kabul. On Nov 11, 2015 close to one million people marched through the streets of the capital to condemn terrorism and the inaction of the government. During the demonstration, those who had access to the internet posted photos, videos, and reports from the streets.
As the result of these online and offline activities, the “Movement of Justice for Shukria” spread to all parts of Afghanistan and around the world. Throughout this time, hundreds of protests, speeches, and candlelight vigils were held in memory of the brutally murdered 9 year old Shukria inside and outside of the country. Eventually the movement gained such global popular support that it was renamed the “International Movement of Justice for Shukria” on Facebook. The key point of this movement’s success was its efficacy building online and offline networks that bolstered the formation and implementation of this regular, nonviolent action and prevented widespread proliferation of misinformation.
As a final word, it can be concluded that online posts, comments, and shares along are undoubtedly not enough to set up and realize an effective civic activity. Virtual and physical activism are complementary of one another, and as Van de Donk (2004) notes, online activism complements not replaces traditional forms of activism (qtd. in Harlow, 2011). Therefore, a civic activity with specific demands and a purpose to create societal change requires proper planning and effective mobilization of people from different classes by way of both, both online and offline means, the fruits of these labors can then be reflected via social media to attract further national and international support.
- Castells, E. (2014). The impact of the internet on society: a global perspective. Retrieved from www.bbvaopenmind.com
- CIA, (2014). Fact Book https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html
- El-Nawawy, M. & Khamis, S. (2012). Political activism 2.0: Comparing the role of social media in Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” and Iran’s “Twitter Uprising”. Cyber Orient Online Journal of the Virtual Middle, 6(1)
- Harlow, S. (2012). Social media and social movements: Facebook and online Guatemalan justice movement that moved offline. New Media & Society, 14(2), 225-243.
- Morozov, E. (2012). The net delusion: The dark side of Internet freedom. PublicAffairs.
- UN. (2015). The State of Broadband 2015. Retrieved from www.broadbandcommission.org
- Van Staveren, I. & van der Hoeven, R. (2012). Global Trends in Labor Market Inequalities, Exclusion, Insecurity and Civic Activism.