Online versus real-life activism

The springboard for this post is the uproar in Jamaica about inaccurate billing by the local power company. The protest began in earnest online, but observations were made that it did not successfully translate into similar levels of protest in real-life.

Over the past several months, there has been a growing outcry in Jamaica about the drastic increase in electricity bills issued by the incumbent power company, the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPSCo). Over the last week or so, the uproar reached a point where campaigns on social networking sites, especially Facebook, as well as via email, were launched asking the public to wear black T-shirts and/or completely switch off the electric supply at their premises on Friday 19 August.

By that Friday, the power company, utility regulator and government were engaged in dialogue to determine how best to address the concerns raised. However, news reports indicated that the public response to wearing the black T-shirts was “underwhelming”, although the protest appeared to have considerable support online. The seemingly wide disparity between the level of agitation recorded online and that physically demonstrated last Friday should not be surprising, when the impact of the Diaspora and the difference between awareness and commitment are considered.

Impact of Diaspora

The Jamaican diaspora (similar to other Caribbean countries) is considerable and its impact on matters occurring in Jamaica should not be underestimated. To varying degrees, Jamaicans overseas are keen to participate in matters back home, especially when injustices have been alleged. Consequently, a sizeable number of the online participants might actually have been its expatriate population, which would distort reports of the actual number of residents that were clamouring for action.

An instructive example of the impact of such external forces  is the protests following the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, which is sometimes referred to as the “Twitter Revolution”, since it was reported that protestors relied primarily on Twitter to communicate with each other.  However, in The Twitter Devolution, Golnaz Esfandiari makes a powerful case that Twitter (and other social networking sites) did not contribute to the demonstrations within Iran, since among other things,

  • English, not the national language, Farsi (also known as Persian), was the language used for most of the tweets
  • the most prominent Twitter contributors commenting on the protests were not based in Iran, and
  • the Iranian government had shut down the mobile network across Tehran, as is its practice during periods of unrest.

… But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves…

Awareness versus commitment

Social networking sites have shown themselves to be invaluable for increasing the awareness of issues. They are inherently designed to share information, and many account holders are eager to increase the size of their network or following, and hence their target audience. Furthermore, it requires little effort to indicate support. For example, on Facebook, you can like, comment on or share a post, website or Facebook page of interest, and on Twitter, you can tweet or retweet as desired. However, those actions require relatively little commitment or inconvenience. They help to increase the circulation and awareness of particular issues, but in actual fact, do not guarantee increased or more tangible participation. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, noted the following:

… Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…

Concluding remarks

It is perhaps important to highlight that the impact of social media and networking sites on society is still evolving.  Although they have been gaining prominence over the last 3 to 5 years, we might still be in the novelty stage. We might still be at a point where we are enamoured by the amount of information available, but are not quite sure how best to use it, and what the associated obligations might be.