We Can No Longer Question the Effectiveness of Internet Activism

by Brittany Dawson

On Friday December 5th, enlivened and outraged protesters flooded highway I-95 in Miami, Florida. In the wake of Eric Garner’s death—equipped with posters that read “I Can’t Breathe”, megaphones, and a mission to denounce police brutality—community members, students, and those rooted in the cause shut down I-95, signaling one of the most earth-shattering demonstrations of public resistance to date. Thanks to Internet activists and social media, I did not have to physically be in Florida to watch and appreciate the unraveling of a historical protest. Twitter served as a meeting ground for activists (and those unable to make the pilgrimage to the protest site) as well as an opportunity to absorb images and marvel in soul-stirring protests worldwide.

Aside from being a noteworthy byproduct of globalization, technological advancement, and an expanding population, Internet activism remains a palatable choice for Millennials and other generations who aim to engage with social justice issues in a variety of ways. Internet activism is an all you can eat buffet: we pile our plates with information collected on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, ravenously devouring topics of racial ineuqality, police brutality, and systemic privileges all in the name of justice. With the Internet’s fluidity and accessibility, Internet activism punctures White dominated spaces from multiple angles, a bravura display oftentimes associated with academia, protests, sit-ins, or other traditional models of activism. Nonetheless, conventional wisdom readily champions hitting the streets in lieu of a status update.

We’ve been acculturated to primarily value activism resulting in protests displayed in Miami or Ferguson, not hashtags or Facebook status critiques. If we only entertain these traditional forms of activism, we inadvertently overlook the transformative power of Internet activism. Consider #BlackLivesMatter, a clear demonstration of the Internet’s capacity for inciting change. My heart beat softly as I watched videos documenting the hardened staccato stomps of protesters marching in unison on the darkened streets of Miami. They all donned fearlessness and t-shirts with “#BlackLivesMatter” emblazoned on the front, holding up signs with the faces of our slain kin. This was a powerful scene that showed how physical protests negotiate space with the virtual: the two form a cohesive unit, neither erasing the importance of the other. Both are necessary in this day and age.

Arguably, the most meaningful element of Internet activism is its ability to engage countless voices and evoke responses paramount to change. In July 2014, the hashtag #IAmJada served to bring attention to 16 year old Jada’s sexual assault, who had previously been mocked on social media, Black women and supporters pounced on the opportunity to reposition Jada’s narrative at the center, eradicating the suffocating stigma that haunts sexual assault survivors. The Internet aggregates, documents, and archives these experiences that, when left in the care of mainstream media, deteriorate without mourning. We need Internet activism as much as it needs courageous, candid accounts of all experiences, no matter how harrowing or uncomfortable.

As demonstrated by the Internet’s immediacy, anything has the potential to go viral. Viral news goes beyond view count or popularity in relation to Internet activism, and more often than not, individuals entrusted with acting ethically are revealed to be corrupt in their own way. Several days ago, a viral story on racist texts sent between five Ohio sheriff’s deputies sparked Internet activists to speak out on racism’s smothering omnipresence. Not all viral news stories result in the immediate righting of wrongs, but it does add pressure to seek some justice—as in many cases, a smeared public image is enough to incite action of some kind. Internet activism succeeds when these stories become viral and alert the public of an injustice—the same way an Amber Alert or a blaring tornado siren would warn of imminent danger.

But what about stories that fail to reach this level of exposure or simply die away? Viral news is initially considered urgent, but still has an expiration date. Remember the controversial Kony 2012 viral video? After reaching an astounding 100 million views in 6 days, virtual activists were galvanized to act towards finding Joseph Kony. College campuses worldwide began creating Kony 2012 organizations to help; nevertheless, a once viral success story staggered away several months later, leaving many clueless on the whereabouts of those held captive by Kony. No follow up, no update, nothing. Internet activism is shrouded in ephemerality, a ticking time bomb lies dormant until set off by stories deemed more important at the time, like Beyoncé’s unannounced album drop, Kim Kardashian’s breakfast, or Azealia Banks’ beef with Igloo Australia (oops, I mean Iggy Azalea.) Yes, I understand the cultural relevance of this news, but still, it demonstrates how Internet activism can easily fall prey to a capricious-minded media.

Internet activism is here to stay. We should embrace, rather than erase it. Activists who favor “real”, physical protests instead of an ostensibly “lazy” hashtag dialogue view activism very differently. But as Martin Luther King’s protests and images of third wave feminist leaders like Audre Lorde become synonymous with activism, we must be reminded that these reveal only one facet of activism. Internet activism has enacted a revolutionary spark of resistance. There is no reason to accept only one model of participating in activism.

How will you spark change?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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