Is ‘raising awareness’ through social media enough?

“A tale told by an idiot, full of storm and fury, signifying nothing”

EDMONTON, AB, Jan 28, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Remember #BringBackOurGirls? #WhyILeft? #BlackLivesMatter? #ICantBreath?

These and other concerned citizen hashtags made the rounds last year, being retweeted millions of times and even being the subject of stories in major news outlets – a mark of how feeble and clueless the 24-hour news channels are about what is actually happening in the world and how far they have descended to reporting to us “what people are talking about” instead of trying to determine what the public needs to know.

Social media fails to deliver

To judge by the volume of reporting, the biggest news story from last year was that many people expressed their concerns about troubling events around the world.

And what became of the subjects of those hashtags? To take just the first, the hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria are still missing, most likely either dead or turned into sex slaves for Islamic militants. Nothing was done by any government or activist organization beyond ‘awareness raising.” How about #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreath? Many, many people turned out and protested both after the initial deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but there is no evidence of police departments being called to account or changing their policies towards minorities.

All this hashtag activism seems to be mere “slacktivism” – the appearance and feeling of doing something without actual result. In an earlier age it would have been called sentimentality.

social media
It takes more than a retweet or an afternoon of marching to change the world

But wait, you may say, there’s nothing wrong with hashtag activism. If nothing else, it does raise awareness. But what does it mean to raise awareness? To make someone aware of something is to point it out to them, presumably because they haven’t noticed before. If I raise someone’s awareness of a cloud of toxic gas rolling towards their home I have done them a service because I give them an opportunity to evacuate. If I alert the police to a drunk driver, I serve the public interest because they will pull him over. What about when I join a protest march carrying a placard and making a temporary nuisance of myself?

The awareness raising we see in hashtag activism and protest marches is a feeble attempt to get the government to act, to change policies, procedures, or laws. In itself, this seems like a good thing: after all, politicians must answer to the will of the public – mustn’t they? Awareness raising is what we philosophers call a necessary but not sufficient condition for change – It’s necessary that government be alerted to the public’s concern about a problem but if they don’t believe the public are serious they have no need to act.

To young people and idealists everywhere, the disturbing but hard truth is that no politician or government is impressed when you march in the street demanding action or retweet a hashtag. Especially if you are young because, after all, young people don’t vote in significant enough numbers to actually effect change, whereas older people, with a more serious sense of where their own interests lie, do.

Furthermore, the very fact that these causes pass so quickly from public notice is a reflection of their passing fancy rather than stated or revealed long-term interests of its proponents. Is it any wonder politicians fail to take them seriously?

In a way you can’t blame people for being attracted to any form of slacktivism. They are neither taught nor are they willing to take the time to learn how to actually effect change. Our school system may teach us how a bill becomes a law, but is silent as to the initial impetus for a change in the law or how to garner enough votes to actually change it.

Social media no way to change the world

It takes more than a retweet or an afternoon of marching to change the world. Real reform requires sustained, long-term commitment. It takes protest and letter writing campaigns and boycotts and strikes and a thousand other actions sustained over a long period of time.

Without personal responsibility and concrete plans for action, all this social media ‘awareness raising’ is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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