Friday, April 30, 2010

Internet promoting 'benign' slacker activism: experts

Websites like Facebook have created a passive sense of advocacy known as "slacktivism."

Thierry Roge/Reuters
Websites like Facebook have created a passive sense of advocacy known as "slacktivism."

Misty Harris, Canwest News Service
Published: Thursday, April 29, 2010

Though the Internet has long been praised as a boon to social advocacy, observers say we may have reached a tipping point.

That is, it's become so effortless to lend "support" to a cause -- whether forwarding an e-mail petition or using Facebook status-updates as a soapbox -- that meaningful protest is now getting lost in the din of slacktivism.

"We're seeing a proliferation of initiatives and sites that promise connection to a social issue but are ultimately benign," says Martin Laba, director of the School of Communication at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University.

"Without a doubt, it's making the efforts of activism ever more daunting."

The problem isn't that the Internet isn't useful for grassroots lobbying; Laba notes that his students have leveraged online media to mobilize large numbers of people around such issues as AIDS and human trafficking.

The problem is saturation, along with the prevailing attitude that joining a Facebook group called "I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who hate cancer!" is advocacy enough.

"It would be nearsighted of us to extrapolate that all activism that uses digital technology is somehow diminished," says Laba.

"But there's merit to the argument that we're witnessing a decrease in our commitment and capacity to act on social issues because new media requires no effort, and very little thinking."

Some 1.37 million people have used to overlay their Twitter avatars with an e-ribbon flaunting support of a cause. But how many of those people have donated time or money to their banner issue?

The same question was posed in January, when thousands of women posted their bra colour to Facebook -- a salacious exercise intended to raise awareness for breast cancer but which ultimately shed more light on lingerie preferences.

Sanjeev Anand, a law professor at the University of Alberta, says the sum effect is reduced credibility for Internet protests across the board, whether social, political or judicial.

"It's so easy now to just click your mouse and ‘sign' a petition," says Anand, noting that many people know little or nothing about the issues to which they're lending their name.

To illustrate: In 2009, researchers from Denmark created an online group dedicated to saving a famous fountain from demolition. Though no plan existed to tear down the artifact, some 27,000 people joined the protest in just two weeks.

Legitimate efforts that reach critical mass, however, can still be fruitful.

"The people who work in the justice system are human, and high-profile cases are sometimes treated differently . . . when they know the public is watching," says Anand. "It's the whole physics principle that when you observe something, you actually change its nature."

Justin Arjoon, a student at the University of Toronto, admits that when he joined the online group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, he didn't expect anything to come of it. But when the group's numbers topped 200,000, he realized its capacity to keep the issue in the news was a pretty powerful thing.

The Facebook group has since become a touchstone for political discussions of every stripe, inspiring Arjoon to help create the grassroots organization Canadians Advocating Political Participation using the same acronym.

Being heard will be a continuing challenge for young activists, who share cyberspace with such efforts as the 43,000-strong campaign to make actor William Shatner the next governor general of Canada. But experts say there's encouragement to be found in advocacy whose credibility cuts through the clutter -- such as the "citizens' initiative" to fight harmonized sales tax in British Columbia, which has attracted support from 145,500 Canadians and counting.

"Six previous attempts to use this initiative process have failed," says Norman Ruff, associate professor of political science at the University of Victoria. "But there are indications that the current anti-HST signature campaign may come much, much closer to crossing the threshold."

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