Internet: The opiate of the masses?

Eva Short

Staff Writer

The internet’s reach is so infinite that it seems no aspect of human existence can go untouched or unaffected by it. Activism and political movements are no exception. With its ability to enable the rapid and almost uncontrollable dissemination of information, as well as how it can unify people irrespective of geographic location, one might think that the internet would serve as an invaluable tool to the people of the technological age gunning for change.

Yet there are those that fret over the rise of the internet. Of the many complaints raised about it, one that is most relevant to activism is the internet’s contribution to the ever shortening attention span of our generation. There are now aggregate news sources devoted to taking stories and compressing them into easy to consume sound bites. Information is collated into snappy bullet points containing key figures, quotes and facts, the CliffsNotes of current affairs.

A deluge of information can flow through people’s RSS feeds and wash over them. The internet user does take it in, but only semi-consciously, and this information overload can have a desensitising effect.  Stories fail to shock – and some even go so far as to claim that their unflappability in the face of violence, human rights abuses and devastation is a victory, proof of how hardened to the world they are. It is this unflappability that lends itself to people hopping between “causes” – the internet user observes, drums up a superficial level of sympathy and passion, and with minimal effort can “contribute”.

Participation is only a matter of twitching a finger, a simple and inconsequential click. All one has to do is enter some information into social activism websites such as – a name and an email address, neither of which even have to be real. If one does opt to impart their actual name and address, they may feel as if they’ve truly committed themselves as they cross their fingers and hope that providing this information won’t leave them prey to being plagued with follow up emails concerning the cause to which they’ve half-heartedly subscribed. For those not willing to take such a risk, there’s always Twitter. A hashtag is all that stands between a person and involvement in a wider movement. In 140 characters, they can join the dialogue and do their bit towards attaining the coveted ‘trending’ status. They will instantly be linked to every other person involved. Is this ease to be celebrated, or regarded as the baleful mother of laziness? There are cases for either side.

The most notable case study in the arsenal of those in favour of internet activism – sometimes dubbed ‘clicktivism’ or ‘Activism 2.0’ – is the case of the Arab Spring. A revolutionary wave that is said to have begun on 18th December 2010, the movement has led to leaders being forced out of government in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt as well as civil uprisings in a number of other Arab nations.

These incredible outcomes can, in part, be credited to online activism. It is said that the internet allowed people to unite, express their views without censor (to an extent), and organise themselves efficiently. The mobilisation of ideas was merely a matter of having a broadband connection. Insurgents, normally limited to clandestine underground interactions, could easily connect and recruit fellow rebels.

While this is undoubtedly an achievement, it is important that we do not confuse the contribution of the internet with the internet being the actual impetus for uprising – the distinction is important, for it reminds us that while it the internet is a valuable tool, it has not yet proven useful in instilling passion in the hearts of those not already involved.

The web crusaders of the Arab Spring already had reasons to be angry; authoritarianism, political corruption and the egregious flouting of human rights. These people’s protestations would have undoubtedly manifested into tangible, real world acts regardless of whether internet activism came into play. Social media did not found the movement, but merely bolstered it. American political activist Ralph Nader has claimed that the internet “doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action”. In light of this statement, the instances where change is affected by movements whose roots can be traced back solely to the internet, without any corresponding real world action, seem perplexing.

Such is the case of social activist website, a Delaware-based corporation that has become the fastest growing social activism site since it was founded in 2007. At ten million members strong and averaging 500 new petitions a day, the website has become a tour de force that has resulted in real world change, despite the seeming insignificance of one person signing a name or sharing a link via Facebook or Twitter.

“In our age, the average life expectancy is quickly and steadily increasing, yet people are increasingly pressed for time. This is the on demand generation – people mould life according to their schedules, as opposed to the other way around.”

The case of Trayvon Martin, the seventeen year old Florida male that was shot by George Zimmerman, a man claiming to be acting in self defence, springs to mind. Having been released the same night as he was taken into custody and without a charge, 2.2 million people signed a petition calling for the man’s prosecution. It was, at the time, the greatest number of signatures that had ever been collected for one cause in the site’s history. A little over a month after the petition was created, Zimmerman was again arrested and subsequently stood trial.

There were undoubtedly real world protests in response to this criminal case; people took to the streets, but not 2.2 million of them. Logic would dictate that this number of people, hailing from all different parts of the world, could never conceivably come together.

Yet the fear of this number was potent enough to spurn Florida law enforcement to double back on their initial decision and pursue Zimmerman. It is this that complicates the argument – if this internet-only action, this ‘slacktivism’, is so ineffectual, then how could it inspire such fear?

Slacktivism is the pejorative term for the aforementioned Activism 2.0 – it is inherently critical, hitting upon the perceived laziness of internet petitions and keyboard crusading. Slacktivism scares those gunning for change – the idea that the internet can enable people to retreat into themselves and make paltry contributions to various causes without having to actually be involved.

The response to the 2010 natural disaster in Haiti has drawn much criticism. In the space of two days, thanks to social media plugging, the Red Cross raised $5 million dollars (roughly €3.65 million) via text donations.

While this may seem an extraordinary and commendable amount, critics pointed out that this was just a matter of people throwing money at an issue in the absence of doing something that would require effort. The act was simple and thoughtless. It’s very easy to coax people to part with their cash when it promises to alleviate guilt with minimal exertion. The transaction was completely invisible. It could be done from people’s own homes and was over in seconds. One message could allow someone to clear their conscience and not think about the people in Haiti again.

Those in the Activism 2.0 camp would think differently. They would claim that it is not that people don’t want to make an effort, but that they simply find trying to get involved too daunting or don’t have the time. In our age, the average life expectancy is quickly and steadily increasing, yet people are increasingly pressed for time. This is the on demand generation – people mould life according to their schedules, as opposed to the other way around. If all the time they can honestly spare for causes is a few seconds to give a donation, then surely they cannot be criticised for that. This camp believe in the inherent altruism of humanity; people are giving what they can, and some can only give mere moments, but they’re doing it out of compassion. The question one must ask is: where does altruism end and guilt begin?

Though in the developed world we perceive the internet to be a ubiquitous and omniscient force, in reality a mere 39% of the world is on the web. Internet users are the minority, or perhaps more accurately the elite. 31% of the developing world has access to the internet, versus 77% percent of those living in developed regions such as America, Australia and Europe. So it stands to reason that these internet activists are primarily of the upper strata of society – information is being spread at incredible rates, but it is being shared amongst a certain type of people.

The internet’s ability to bring people together and allow them to share information is, without question, extremely valuable. The nature of the internet makes it incredibly difficult for governments or oppressive bodies to control the spread of information and the importance of this cannot be overstated.

The internet, in this respect, is the friend of the activist. However as it stands, the internet can’t exactly be labelled the bastion of democratic values and freedom of information that it is made out to be. It is only relevant to a limited minority, and the things it enables this minority to do aren’t always good.

That being said, the age of social media is in its infancy – its involvement in activist campaigning is only beginning, and the role it plays will undoubtedly develop and change over time. Global internet usage has more than doubled in the last five years. At that rate, internet usage will become next to universal within our lifetime.

We are inching closer to being entirely unified online. As the user demographics change, so will the entity itself, and with that so will its role in social and political matters. It could be called a force of nature; it’s with us now and can never be taken away. We have endowed it with such power that it is practically beyond our control. Let us just hope that this wild and awesome power continues to be an ally of the underdog and of the revolutionaries trying to protect them.