Hash tags, slacktivists and real change

Sarah Britten talks about the possibilities, the mirages, and the limits, of societal changes driven through social media-driven change

Earlier this year, an FNB campaign appeared. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it. I’m sure you’re all familiar, too, with the ANC’s response to some of the supporting videos that appeared on the blog. What’s really interesting is that the ruling party accused FNB of trying to recreate an “Arab spring” – essentially, using social media to galvanise the public into action against the government.

This is ridiculously overwrought when you think about it. If you go to the FNB blog – despite all the reporting on the issue, which was in many cases quite extraordinarily inaccurate, the ad campaign itself was never taken down – it tells you to tweet with #littlehelps about little things that make a difference – like “be on time” or “help someone cross the road”. All very Lead SA Lite.

Why the ANC was worried is beyond me, because to date, social media platforms – Facebook. Twitter, MXit, Instagram, blogs, the comments facility on news websites – has not proven very effective in driving political change. Tweeting is not the same as doing. It’s just much easier, which is why we have yet another portmanteau for the growing collection, the slacktivist or desktop activist.

In Egypt, social media was used to coordinate efforts on the ground – telling groups of people where and when to meet. Social media made it easy for ordinary citizens to spread information in a society in which governments have historically exerted a lot of control over the public and the information available to them.

This brings me to issues you’ve asked me specifically to address: hash tags like the ones for #etolls and #stoprape. I’ll start with the latter because it’s a lot more fresh in our minds in the wake of the horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen. I’ll offer a specific example of how I used social media. I knew the outrage would inevitably die down as we moved on to the next thing – as it happened, the Sexwale divorce that Sunday and then Oscar Pistorius the following Thursday – so I created a blog of artwork inspired by Anene with the aim of raising funds for Lawyers Against Abuse, an NGO started by Prof Bonita Meyersfeld who lectures at the Wits Law School.

Now, we have the #stoprape hash tag, driven to a large degree by Primedia, Yusuf Abramjee and Lead SA. Will using this hash tag actually stop rape? I doubt it. Will it prompt members of the public to donate to organizations like Lawyers Against Abuse? Maybe. Will it remind people who hear their friends boasting about having their way with “some drunk chick” to call them out on it? I hope.

I asked this question of my followers on Twitter, and I got a range of responses. Clearly, no rapist is going to scroll through his timeline, see #stoprape and go “Oh, ok, I’ll stop raping”. But by making support for this issue visible it does serve as a constant reminder of the need for action. We have short attention spans and it’s easy to move on to the next distraction.

It’s worth comparing #stoprape to #etolls because kind of problems they speak to are very different. The anti-etolls campaign is interesting because it’s one of very few issues that brings together middle class outrage – what we like to call slacktivism – with the kind of grassroots protest that Cosatu is so good at. It works well because you have a broad groundswell of resistance to something that’s relatively simple. Either you introduce etolls or you don’t. It’s up to a few political power players to make that decision.

Rape is entirely different. It’s a massive problem deeply rooted in society and culture. It happens between individuals, in the street, in the privacy of homes. It’s a function of our high crime rate, but also an aspect of domestic violence.

#Stoprape makes sense if you’re focused on a specific outcome, like the introduction of a new law, or bringing back rape courts.  In India, protests have tended to focus on retraining police, bringing in legal reforms and introducing measures to make life safer for women.

It doesn’t work if you’re trying to well, stop rape, because that requires intervention throughout the chain of pathology, from poverty and broken families, to patriarchy, drugs, our education system, the police, the justice system and correctional services. A hash tag cannot possibly fix that.

But I do think that Twitter campaigns are part of the response. Twitter is becoming increasingly influential, and when I advise my clients to use it, it’s to get to the media who hang out there. If you’ve ever spent time on Twitter, you’ll see how journalists express themselves and influence is generated.

It’s telling that a huge driver of interest in Twitter is not the chance to become better informed or share your views, but to keep up to date with the Oscar Pistorius case. Barry Bateman of Eyewitness News saw his followers grow from 17 000 to 120 000 in a week (he’s now sitting at 132 000).

Perhaps we should use some of the insights from the massive interest in Pistorius and the relative success of the etolls protests to understand how to get activism to work better online. Drive people towards specific, measurable and useful outcomes, for one thing. Perhaps conduct a Pareto analysis: in the midst of this massive problem, what is the one intervention that will make the biggest difference, and focus all this outrage on achieving that.

Create a narrative arc for the issue. People pay more attention when they want to know what happens next. Keep interest going in what is often a long and hard slog without obvious progress.

I think Twitter will play an important role in shaping opinion around the 2014 elections, but whether it will have a meaningful impact on behaviour is another question entirely. It’ll be interesting to see how Agang uses social media – so far, I’m not blown away.

Perhaps the real impact of social media lies less in activism and more in the way it allows information to spread, and in what it makes visible. Think about that Daily Sun video of the Daveyton police dragging a taxi driver, which shocked us last week.

That happened because a member of the public had a cellphone, took a video, then sent it to a mainstream media outlet, which then distributed it to the rest of the world. Awareness was amplified by other news sites and social media gave people a platform to discuss what had happened. The police officers involved have now been arrested – but if it weren’t for that video, if all we had to go by was a news report (if we’re lucky) there would be no public outrage. So all of these elements worked in conjunction to achieve an outcome.

If social media is to be useful and driving the change we want to see in our society and culture, then we have to make a connection between being seen to care about something, and actually doing something. We have to make the move from the online world to what is now known as “meatspace” – meat, as in donkey passing itself off as beef – because meatspace is where it matters.

This is an edited version of a talk given by WHAM! associate editor Sarah Britten to students of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.