When you hear the words “civic engagement,” “participatory action” or “activism,” what do you think of? Traditionally, these terms have tended to evoke images of election campaigns, voting, marches on the streets, volunteering, mutual aid, and other forms of community engagement. Ask a young person today, and they may answer differently. While these traditional elements have remained central to political participation, digital technologies have broadened the space of political engagement and have strengthened youth participation in politics. Young people have leveraged the online-offline convergence to forge connections around important global issues across social media platforms while developing messaging and organizing strategies that apply to their local contexts.
Activism in the Digital Age
The broadening of the civic space into the digital realm was a process that started long before the word “COVID” was on anybody’s radar. A notably early champion of the digital activism model was 350.org – an international environmental organization that works to address the ongoing climate crisis. In 2009, 350.org organized an International Day of Climate Action in the lead-up to the 2009 COP Summit in Copenhagen. Through online platforms, activists were invited to organize local events to “show the world’s leaders that there is a global movement for them to come to an agreement on a carbon emissions treaty. . . in Copenhagen.” The organization created interactive digital maps of events to link potential participants with local climate action initiatives in their communities. While not explicitly a youth-led organization, the use of digital technology and the focus on an issue relevant to the youth of today drew out large numbers of young people.
This model of activism has since been adopted by several youth-led and youth-focused social movements and political uprisings, such as Fridays for Future. While walk-outs and protests occurred mostly on the streets through local chapters of the movement, it also adopted a decentralized structure where the central message was coordinated and transmitted to participants and the broader public using several media channels.
These examples point to some of the benefits of using digital platforms, such as providing the global reach necessary to address issues like climate change. Online platforms are also accessible; they offer a low barrier-to-entry and decentralized structure so that anyone from anywhere can get the information necessary to participate in political life.
These elements also exhibit why digital activism has been so appealing to young people, many of whom either do not have access to or are disconnected from more traditional institutions of political participation. Not only are many young people unable to participate in political life due to technicalities like voting age laws, but an increasing number of young people feel disengaged from political institutions altogether. The Harvard Institute of Politics’ Youth Poll shows declining levels of trust in government among Americans aged 18-29. A similar survey conducted by the London School of Economics showed that the majority of young European respondents believe that the political order does not reflect their needs, interests, or priorities. The inaccessibility and disconnect with these institutions explain why the youth of today have taken to other channels to voice their concerns and interests.
COVID-19 and Youth-led Initiatives
The COVID-19 pandemic posed a number of challenges to activist movements and made the merging of the civic space with the digital space more apparent. Bans on physical gatherings dealt a serious blow to grassroots activism campaigns, making channels for political participation less accessible. The pandemic also cast a spotlight on health-related, economic, and social inequities and policy gaps related to these inequities. Thus, the need for global activism seemed more pressing.
Being cut off from protesting almost entirely, most established movements took to “digital striking” on social media. For example, Fridays For Future promoted the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline and #fighteverycrisis, and 350.org created the Teach-Ins for a Just Recovery Campaign, where local activists could use a curated toolkit to conduct webinars on what pandemic recovery could look like for their communities. As a result of COVID-19 pushing most activism into the digital space, it also created opportunities to strengthen movements around issues that may have received less attention in recent years, like gender-based violence and migration.
Scarlet Udaan: Building Connections and Promoting Awareness Online
Scarlet Udaan is one such organization highlighting these issues. Founded in July 2020, the global youth organization aims to raise awareness on female genital cutting (FGC). While definitions vary and are hotly debated, FGC broadly entails any injury or harm done to external female reproductive organs for non-medical purposes. Spheres of Influence had the opportunity to speak to Sanya Sharma, the founder and global director of the organization and a third-year law student at Durham University, about her experience creating the online-based organization.
Sharma describes how the idea for the organization came from how inaccessible traditional institutions and sources of information are. “In my first year at university, I was part of a project that worked on women’s issues,” she says. “This was the first time I heard about FGC and it was baffling. I had no idea what it was. I started having conversations with friends and family members about this and they had no idea either. Everyone was like ‘What is FGC?’ This just proved to me how inaccessible that information was. FGC is a major global concern. It affects 200 million people. Academia, governments, and international organizations that address the issue do not provide enough nuance, they’re disconnected. They’re also gatekept. They use language that people do not understand, so crucial information gets lost in jargon. That’s where Scarlet Udaan stemmed from.”
Sharma expresses the clear disconnect between what institutions do to address pressing global issues and what young people think is necessary to create change. When asked about why the digital space was considered most appropriate for FGC awareness, she notes how “the digital space is accessible and really expands the possibilities of what creating change could look like. It lets us create a safe space for people having such conversations, ones that may be considered taboo, or that people do not know much about. Our team members are from eight different countries around the world. We were able to come together and work together for a common cause, which might not have been possible offline. We also have regional expertise. This creates very nuanced views of culture and tradition, and the complexity of the issues we focus on. The online space has opened up a whole new realm of having access to other organizations and youth activists with similar goals.”
Digital Activism as Fostering Collaboration
The organization also uses a variety of media to reach out to a broad audience. “We have different tools at our disposal to create change, which allows us to make the information accessible to more people” describes Sharma. “We have social media posts for a quick introduction to the office, a podcast for a deep dive, detailed zoom sessions, and live streams for more targeted information. It lets us organize creative ways to make change and have an impact.”
In regards to whether the organization plans to take its activities offline, Sharma replied how [they] “are working on eventually moving some of [its] activities offline, but I think the division between online and offline media is almost misconstrued. Of course, they’re separate and have different benefits. But organizations don’t have to choose one or the other to be successful. It’s useful to be online for the reach. As a young person, getting to work with so many other young people and survivors across the world is great. But we’re all also people on the frontlines, both online and offline. Having both brings a community together and we can push for change across the world. Especially during the pandemic, when other channels are closed off.”
Sharma’s experience emphasizes the value that youth activists see in using online platforms for their advocacy work, and shows how it can foster collaboration among people who are passionate about specific issues. It not only allows for different regional and local perspectives to be expressed, but it also creates a safe space for people to have conversations about topics that are underreported. Not to mention, digital media also allows for a degree of autonomy and creativity in how information is disseminated and can make content accessible to a wider audience.
However, digital activism is not without its critics. Many people have called these forms of advocacy lazy and half-hearted, giving rise to the terms “clicktivism” and “slacktivism,” which is colloquially defined as “the self-deluded idea that by liking, sharing, or re-tweeting something you are helping out.” Critics contrast digital activism with so-called “real activism” through community organizing and protest, and things like social media stories, viral campaigns, signing petitions, and gaining followers – all associated with online activism – are looked down upon. As one source puts it: “Clicktivism is to activism what McDonald’s is to a slow-cooked meal.”
These critics may not be entirely wrong. For instance, many people tend to share stories and retweet things without actually taking any action with regard to the issue. There have been numerous examples of this in recent years. The Black Lives Matter movement saw this with individuals posting black squares on their Instagram pages with the hashtags #BlackOutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter. The latter hashtag has been used by Black organizers, activists, artists, and accomplices to share crucial information on protests, donations, resources, and evidence of police brutality. The valuable information that the movement sought to convey was lost in a sea of tiny black squares. Slacktivism not only drowns out the voices of those who are on the frontlines of movements but also trivializes pressing issues. The latest example of this is people’s responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which ranges from people glorifying the “war aesthetic”, to comparisons of the conflict to science fiction series, to empty reshares of videos purported to be from the frontlines but are actually footage from previous conflicts.
What does this mean for movements that do use social media? Are all forms of digital activism a lost cause? Is online activism inherently performative?
In Sharma’s opinion, “The narrative [of ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’] fails to consider that change-making is generational and transformative. It changes as times change. We have to adapt. I think young people really understand that, especially since we’re having conversations like this. The work that young people are doing is testament to the effectiveness of these changes. The climate change movement, with the litigations and everything, students testifying in Congress, it shows the power of young people and all they are doing. This is us taking responsibility and really stepping up. We’re using the tools we’re familiar with and that give us the visibility we need to get the message across. That’s young people and their power. This doesn’t mean slacktivism is not a challenge; it certainly is, and it’s a hard one to overcome.”
Messages do have power, and those who dismiss digital activism as “slacktivism” often overlook this fact. However, it is also important to keep in mind that this power is not necessarily positive, as the examples of Black Lives Matter and the invasion of Ukraine indicate. There is a further possibility of well-meaning “clicktivists” promoting harmful messaging without meaning to. The subtlety of social media algorithms has been mobilized by several groups promoting exclusionary and discriminatory ideas. An example of this is the eco-fascists – a far-right environmental group that promotes conspicuously white supremacist ideologies. They have been shown to use harmless emojis like trees and waves in their captions while using far-right hashtags on their posts. People who reshare these posts based only on the captions end up promoting ideas that may be harmful or inaccurate.
Like all other forms of collective action, digital activism clearly does have its benefits and banes. The climate movement has sustained itself, and organizations like Scarlet Udaan have grown tremendously in visibility; the organization recently gained recognition from UN Women. On the flip side, eco-fascist messaging has also grown in visibility. Despite the dangers of misinformation and critics’ calls of slacktivism, youth activists seem to have no intention of logging off completely. The exposure, opportunities, and reach of social media seem to outweigh these potential limitations for youth activists, who are actively navigating this space of uncertainty to deepen their movements.
Edited by Chelsea Bean