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Hashtags and Reposts Alone Do Not Make You an Activist — A Case Study From Sudan

In Sudan, bloated bodies lie on the bed of the Nile River, streets previously teeming with pro-democracy protesters are now eerily deserted, and paramilitaries have entirely fractured the country through barbaric tactics of squelching civil unrest. 

Meanwhile in North America, social media users come into contact with this calamity on smartphone screens. Instagram and Facebook flooded with a sea of blue shortly after violence broke out overseas, as the general public alongside high-profile celebrities hashtagged “#blueforsudan” to raise awareness about the unfolding crisis. 

There have even been fake charity accounts promising meal distribution to “starving Sudanese children” in exchange for a repost of their photo. Despite little proof of legitimacy, one account tagged @SudanMealProject gained a staggering 900,000 followers within mere weeks. 

Such a phenomenon signifies that social media users are unequivocally concerned about pressing issues. However, it also paints a far grimmer picture⁠—activism vis-à-vis social media has abandoned efficacy in blind search of accessibility. And fake Instagram charities are only a symptom of the very fateful yet far-reaching rise of online “slacktivism”, which refers to the act of supporting socio-political causes in a way that requires very little effort and rarely brings the movement’s respective goals to fruition.  

Dan Wang, one of the most wanted student protestors at the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, pointed out, “If social protests only remain on the internet, they are of little value. They are at most futile outbursts of sentiment.”

Mr.Wang speaking at the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989. Photo: Facebook/Robs Emporium

Sudan being more than a standalone incident, activism accounts have infiltrated numerous social media platforms, with each of them championing a highly valuable cause ranging from humanitarian crises and warfare to social inequality and climate change. Their content comprises of either an ambitious call to action such as “one like equals one tree planted” or posts calling attention to global happenings, popularizing catch phrases and distributing links to petitions.

Too often, promises made by such pages fall short and prove ineffectual. Reason being, the opportunity cost of taking three seconds to press two buttons and adding a picture to your story becomes so diminished that it’s practically nonexistent. More people get roped in, sure, but they also enjoy a lower exit cost due to the absence of any real investment. And when the hype dies down, so does the movement. 

As expressed by Alec Giufurta, a representative from Darfur Women Action Group ⁠— a non-profit organization that does on-the-ground and advocacy work for Sudan ⁠— when the cost to entry decreases, the incentive to stay dedicated also dwindles. 

“[We all think] we’re changing the world, but these crises are still ongoing as we forget about them,” Giufurta explained. 

Flint, Michigan’s water crisis serves as another pertinent case study. The crisis exploded on social media as rallies to get clean water for Flint reverberated across platforms, but the solidarity did not last. Indignant cries died out, and years have passed since the hashtag first made its rounds on Twitter and Instagram. Flint, still deprived of a basic necessity, exhibits the non-committal nature of social media activism ⁠— how it works like a drug promising to cure the user of all symptoms without undesirable side effects such as loss of time, energy, and potentially safety. 

Slacktivism also reveals more about human nature ⁠— people increasingly want to come off as being aware of the world around them and empathetic enough to do something about it. This makes social media a prime harbour for demonstrations of concern saturated with performative value yet deprived of genuine action. 

There is no easier way to parade your charitable nature than to repost a picture that links you to feeding an emaciated Sudanese child. Especially in an era where being “woke” is a person’s greatest attribute, slacktivism opens up numerous doors to low-risk, high-reward impression management. 

One can’t help but recall memories of grassroots movements which preceded such an interconnected world. For instance, when LGBTQ+ activists combated police raids with beer bottles during the Stonewall riots; when pro-democracy students faced off against military tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989; when thousands marched in Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. objecting to the structural violence against African Americans. 

Image may contain: 2 people
Photo: Facebook/William Floyd

Yes, brutality was intrinsic to some of these protests, but what should not go unrecognized is the grassroots, physical, and powerful activism that much of the West has been deprived of, particularly in an era when social media has become the default tool of pushing for progress. 

A University of British Columbia study affirms that token support, such as regurgitating a hashtag, does not lead to meaningful support for the cause. Modern activism romantically brands individuals as “everyday changemakers”, a seemingly empowering label, but this fundamentally redefines what it means to warrant the weighty title “activist”. Users rarely feel the need to go further than reposting under the empty aspiration of “raising awareness”. 

In another example, Kony 2012, a famously unsuccessful video campaign set out to capture African warlord Joseph Kony, online activism proved useless outside of amassing user attention. 

In contrast, some point to #blacklivesmatter and #metoo as examples of social media activism success stories. However, the reason these campaigns made great strides was because they were followed or bolstered by action in the courts, legislature, and polls. Predatory men were fired, lawsuits were filed, and marches were held, all compounding the campaigns’ political momentum.

Want to make real social change? See social media’s lacklustre response to Sudan as a wake-up call that urges you to make activism active again⁠ — Put your phone down. Write letters to Congress, take your cause to the streets, conduct sit-ins and strikes. 

In the words of Tiananmen Square protester  Mr.Wang: “Social movements do not succeed all at once. On the contrary, they often fail. But we must not give up or despair, because only after relentless failure can we succeed.” 

Social media activism is easy, quick, and simple. But you shouldn’t be using the same words to describe both the process of making oatmeal in the morning and crusading for human rights. Real activism takes you on a long and arduous road, challenging the status quo at the cost of comfort and security. These are the sacrifices that glue you to the cause at hand and makes you deserving of being called an “activist”.

Photo: Facebook/Denise Gloren Guelos

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