#Onlineactivism: More Than Tweets the Eye

April 21, 2013

New technologies and social media are enhancing social activism (Photo credit: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images).
New technologies and social media are enhancing social activism (Photo credit: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images).

By Natalie Butz, Communications Assistant at Amnesty International USA

It’s the phenomenon that’s spawned a thousand names and of course, its own hashtag. And ever since Malcolm Gladwell argued that “social media can’t provide what social change has always needed,” online activism has been critiqued as replacing on-the-ground grassroots organizing while offering only a fraction of the impact.

I thought about that argument last week as I stood with over 60 activists shouting chants and hoisting signs during Amnesty International USA (AIUSA)’s annual Get on the Bus event. Started in 1996 by a local AIUSA chapter in Somerville, Massachusetts, Get on the Bus is an annual day of human rights education and on-the-ground activism. The event’s name stems from its history; participants gather together on buses to rally at strategic locations on behalf of those whom governments would silence. Since its inception, Get on the Bus has spread to Amnesty International groups across the country, including New York City and Washington, D.C.

Last week, we called for LGBT rights in DuPont Circle with Human Rights Campaign (HRC). We demanded the release of political prisoner Filep Karma in front of the Indonesian embassy. We gathered in front of the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, urging authorities to launch an investigation into the disappearance of human rights activist Juan Almonte Herrera. Our activists were invited inside the Romanian embassy to present their case. A crowd that strong is impossible to ignore and our presence was a testimony to the fact that we will not forget the abuses to these individuals they have been subjected.

So what does this “old school” on-the-ground model of social activism have to do with Twignatures and online petitions? How can a Facebook post or a Tweet ever hope to equal the impact of a physical crowd of people?

Did you know that the Bahrani government jailed Nabeel Rajab for one tweet? Or that an activist in Thailand was sentenced to ten years in prison for a blog post? Or that the execution of Abdullah al-Qahtani was delayed after an Amnesty International petition received 30,000 signatures within 24 hours of going live?

I would argue that social media has an important role to play in fostering social change. Technology is enhancing activism, not destroying it. It’s largely because of technology that Amnesty International can tell the world about abuses such as those Filep Karma is subjected to. Online actions aren’t promoting “slacktivism,” particularly when they complement and are reinforced by the power of Amnesty’s grassroots campaigning. They are just one of the tools we can use to help us in our fight for human rights.

Internet activism and physically demonstrating at a rally may be two different things, but they are both very powerful and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.