Cynicism Prevents Us

by Madeleine Stone

Optimism does not come naturally to me.

In fact, my friends and family would probably tell you I have a tendency to be a little disparaging – especially about what I see on social media. I get infinitely frustrated by so many people (mostly of a certain generation, it has to be said) believing anything they see online, just because it has a sad photo attached. So when it comes to activism and social justice campaigns, I find it easy to fall into a similar mode of thinking. Need I mention the infamous ‘Kony 2012’ campaign that blew up on social media but turned out to be misleading in its information, and spending as little as 30% of donations on its projects? Or the frustration when the 276 Nigerian girls weren’t returned and were promptly forgotten about after the #bringbackourgirls campaign, despite selfies from supermodels and America’s First Lady? When I am petitioning, I often get this kind of response. Surely no-one will pay attention to a few hundred signatures from students in a small city in the north of England?

I have to remind myself of Enoh Meyomesse. And Raif Badawi. And Moses Akatugba. And hundreds, if not thousands of other individuals who have been released from prison, spared lashes or saved from death row partly due to the work of online activism.  We do see results. Perhaps if we hadn’t sent those emails, or those letters, or tweets, it would have made no difference. But if everyone took that attitude, men and women all over the globe would still be imprisoned. As clichéd as it sounds, it remains true: a crowd of people calling for justice is made up of individuals, and every individual is needed.

“I want to tell you all that I’m immensely grateful for all you did for me. I received hundreds of letters and they continued to flow when I was no longer in prison […] Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you very much for the support you gave me.”

-Enoh Meyomesse

Another critique of online activism is the growing cynicism surrounding ‘clicktivism’ and online ‘social justice warriors’ who seem happy to share petitions and events, instead of getting out into the ‘Real World’. But what constitutes this ‘Real World’ in a digital age? With most of us spending an average of two hours a day on social media, it makes sense to utilise Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr for purposes other than cat videos and memes. After all, activist campaigns are surely much more ‘real’ than most of what occurs on Facebook and elsewhere. Online activism has the ability to puncture the usually comfortable social media bubble; which can isolate us from troubling realities.

Social media is an incredible tool, a whole world in which people can freely write and read without the control and vested interests of the mainstream media. It is easy to sneer at those who tweet MPs or email embassies, but the keyboard has overtaken the pen, and it is indeed mightier than the sword. As Leo Mirani says “the revolution will indeed be tweeted”.

“A hashtag on Twitter can link the disparate fates of unarmed black men shot down by white police in a way that transcends geographical boundaries and time zones. A shared post on Facebook can organise a protest in a matter of minutes. Documentary photos and videos can be distributed on Tumblr pages and Periscope feeds, through Instagrams and Vines. Power lies in a single image. Previously unseen events become unignorable.”

-Elizabeth Day, The Guardian

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