Why social media can’t change the world

On April 20, 2012, the entire world changed forever. Inspired by Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, millions stormed the streets in protest of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group. These die hard activists stormed the streets armed with posters, t-shirts, and novelty buttons. Overnight, decades old conflicts were solved, Kony was arrested, and justice was served.

The only unfortunate downside to April 20 was that the world didn’t change forever. The millions of protestors turned out to be only a few hundred. The novelty items turned out to be ineffective weapons against the harsh realities of the African continent.

In 3 days, the video garnered 21 million views, and today, the total view count sits at over 90 million. Yet unbeknownst to many Youtube viewers, watching a video is not equivalent to engaging in social advocacy. This had led some to accuse Invisible Children of promoting slacktivism.

They argue that the oversimplification of complex situations into easily digestible social media bites undermines legitimate activism.

However, others reply that awareness campaigns are beneficial, and provide a social outpouring of support that is used to enact real, lasting change.

What do you think? Is Kony 2012 simply a bad example? Can social media really change the world?

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6 responses to “Why social media can’t change the world

  1. I still think that social media can and is changing the world. Many organizations use it to raise awareness about current issues and to raise money for their causes. Although what happened with Kony 2012 was not a success, I still think that there are going to be plenty of other good uses of social media for important issues around the world. I think that Kony 2012 did accomplish at least getting awareness, where they lacked was getting people to act.

  2. I think Kony 2012 is a poor example for social media activism. While it is true that it is the most viral of social media activism, the fact is that the organization behind it was poorly run; only 37% of donated funds went towards Uganda, and 47% was towards simply awareness (Source 1). Compare this to 78% of the Make-A-Wish Foundation National Office (Source 2) and 75% for St. Judge Hospital (Source 3). And don’t get me talking about what happened with the leader of Invisible Children afterwards…

    I do think that social media activism can induce some sort of slacktivism though. I think, however, that this is simply because using social media for social change is something new. Much like how people were afraid to give out personal information when the Internet was new, but now no one really hesitates at giving a website our first and last name, it will merely take time to make people learn that it’s not just enough to watch a video and post on Facebook or on Twitter.

    But, I am sure that these nonprofit organizations don’t mind the exposure! I don’t know about you guys, but I only read and heard about the Make-A-Wish Foundation through books like Chicken Soup for the Soul when I was a kid, but honestly, I don’t remember too many ads on television or whatnot for the organization. But, with social media, how cheap is it to promote your nonprofit? Now the Make-A-Wish Foundation can keep in touch with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of its fans and keep them engaged and updated with the new promotions and productions of the organization.

    Source 1: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/invisible-children-defends-itself-in-new-video-not-a-slacktivist-thing/

    Source 2: http://www.wish.org/about/managing_our_funds

    Source 3: http://www.stjude.org/whysupport

  3. I definitely think that social media is changing the world. It is changing the way we interact with each other–fewer personal, face-to-face interactions and more computer-to-computer interaction. It changes the way we function–now, our lives, or the part of our lives we are proud of, are on display for the world to see. Social media has impacted our lives in these ways, and so much more.

    While social media is a effective way for getting an idea out, it does not often, as we say with the “Kony 2012” example, get the entire message across. Social media tends to present the high points of a story or cause that will give the most responses. For some reason, this creates a need for an immediate response because in a few days, or even hours, that story will be ancient history. People seem to decide immediately whether they are “for” or “against” a cause they saw someone post on social media just for the sake of being for or against something, and will never really know what the cause is actually for unless they do some digging on their own. This can be extremely dangerous if they get on board with the wrong cause, just because it sounded good on social media.

    Kony 2012 did accomplish this response–they presented a viewpoint in a way that was easy to understand and shocking to many Americans and people worldwide, but there is so much more to the story than they were able to present in that short video, and this is where social media falls short of being an effective means of communicating information of this complexity in an overly simplistic way.

  4. While it’s undeniable that social media activism campaigns often do not depict the whole story behind an issue, I think that is the trade-off it makes in order to reach more people. While other sources may be more accurate, they do not have the same breadth of outreach, the concision, or the attention-grabbing factors of a campaign formatted in the online world to which we are so accustomed. Movies often make the same sacrifice: adjusted facts for better storylines, but keeping the same theme to communicate an important message. I think these modified campaigns are crucial in communicating to the masses, while self-education on social and political issues ideally should not end there.

    Kony 2012 is a great example of how quickly these campaigns can catch on, but I think it’s a bad example in how poorly it was managed. There was too much controversy behind the video that it practically launched a reverse campaign, and I think people just got sick of it. (I know I did.)

  5. I’ve actually developed just the opposite impression over the course of this year. The Kony campaign was a disaster, but the SOPA/PIPA protests weren’t. They took place entirely online, were largely organized on and popularized by social media sites, and they were very effective. The same movement spread to Europe shortly afterward and stopped ACTA dead in its tracks. It continued in the US and managed to swat down copy-cat bills that popped up. All of it was organized online and sustained by social media. Of course, the internet freedom people aren’t trying to change the world in quite the same way as the Kony people, but they have created a template for online activism. Future activists will probably be looking at that template for cues and looking at Kony 2012 as an example of what not to do.

  6. You can look at the SOPA/PIPA protests from a few different angles. I think one of the reasons that they were able to gather so much momentum was that there was an easy consensus: “No, these bills should not pass.” People are uncomfortable with controversy and there was nothing controversial about the legislation- it was (or was portrayed as) simply internet freedom vs. large corporations. Second, it could be argued that the bills were defeated by tech lobbyists and corporations (Google, Facebook) that mobilized supporters, and that without corporate support the protests would never have gotten off the ground or been noticed by congress.
    So I guess I’m skeptical of true large-scale, effective grassroots internet activism without some ulterior motive or outside support.

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