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Measuring the effectiveness of online activism

by Sanchia de Souza last modified Apr 02, 2011 03:56 PM
Article by Sruthi Krishnan in The Hindu, 21 June 2009

There are forms of social activism, which are not looked upon favourably

After the Iran elections, social networking sites are used by supporters of Opposition candidate

For the success of an online campaign, the power of the message also counts

CHENNAI: Sit-ins and police arrests. Placards hoisted high and slogans rippling through the crowds. Pamphlets distributed at the dead of night. It was called activism and is still called that — just that the cat and mouse game with the Big Brother has a binary code underlying it.

Social activism in the world of Web 2.0 follows most of the rules of the real world. But the nature of the medium does have an impact on the message, and the jury is still out on how effective activism is online.

After the Iran elections, social networking sites are being used extensively by supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has challenged the validity of the elections. As the Iranian government has placed restrictions on the traditional media, the supporters have sought refuge in the electronic world.

If you search for #IranElection, which is the tag on Twitter, a messaging service, for any update related to the Iran elections, there are minute-by-minute posts by users around the globe. The effects of this decentralised campaign are manifold.

“This raises the awareness of the issues among the people who may not have been exposed to these issues because of the space constraints of traditional media,” says Sunil Abraham, director-policy, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. “It encourages activists on the ground in Iran because it clearly demonstrates global solidarity.” The increased transparency also has a pre-emptive effect by making it more difficult for states and corporations to engage in repressive activities without attracting international condemnation.

But there are forms of social activism online, which are not looked upon favourably.

Campaigns urging you to ‘Click on this link and eradicate world hunger’ lead to an oxymoronic state of sedentary activism or ‘slacktivism.’ Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute at New York, has coined this term to describe “feel-good online activism” that has no political or social impact. On the one hand, it will be easy to dismiss the click-to-participate campaigns as being useless. But they could attract people who would have normally not bothered with the issue. Mr. Morozov concludes that the only way to resolve the debate is by surveying campaigns to analyse impact.

“As far as I know, there are no such studies. But there is anecdotal evidence that clicks on a Web 2.0 system can lead to deeper engagement with social campaigns,” says Mr. Abraham. He cites the example of Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa, who was able to get some members of the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group (with over 90,000 members) to raise questions during open houses called by Canadian Members of Parliament. Thanks to this campaign, the government backed down from legislating anti-consumer intellectual property laws, he says.

For the success of an online campaign, the power of the message also counts. Here, Mr. Abraham refers to the Pink Chaddi campaign. “It did not directly respond to the arguments of the Ram Sene. It used humour to mock the fundamentalists into irrelevance.”

Though there is no clear path to an effective online campaign, the successes have demonstrated the potential of the medium that promises to connect millions with a click. But just as a message can grow stronger as it reaches more people, it can also be spread wafer-thin and lose significance.

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