Online activism does not produce lasting change

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Last week, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Proposition 8 bans gay marriage in California, while DOMA denies federal marriage benefits to those in same-sex marriages. Inspired by the Human Rights Campaign, an organization working for LGBTQ rights, many Facebook users changed their profile pictures to a pink equal sign against a red background in support of marriage equality.

While support for gay marriage is admirable, Internet activism doesn’t result in true change when it comes to controversial issues. If they want success, social media campaigns must focus on getting people out from behind their computer screens.

Currently, social media is unable to motivate users to create lasting change. According to Malcom Gladwell, a staffwriter for The New Yorker, social media creates weak ties, “[which] seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Strong relationships promote action, but these connections are hard to build online.

While changing a picture or liking a campaign page on Facebook raises awareness of national and global issues, it does little to create tangible benefits for those in need. Gladwell notes that each of the 1,282,339 members of the Save Darfur Coalition’s Facebook page on average only donates $0.09. These contributions amount to a mere donation of approximately $115,410.

This meager donation from well over 1 million people for a war-torn region shows that, while social media can garner support for a cause, it is unable to motivate people to take action.

Additionally, Michigan State University research assistant Jessica Vitak found in a study that the more intensely people use Facebook, the less likely they are to participate in other forms of political activism. While she found that they may be influenced by others’ posts, people are less likely to promote change in public the more they promote change from their own computer.

In order to promote real change through social media, campaigns need to reinvent how they advertise. Those hoping to promote change must do more than ask others to like their photo on Facebook or share their link, which only raises awareness. While awareness is valuable to any campaign, people aiming to promote change should focus on tangible ways that people can help outside the realm of social media. Their descriptions of issues should not focus on sharing or liking a post. Instead, leaders of a cause should include ways in which people can publicly address an issue in their community or nation.

The Supreme Court may rule that legislation like DOMA and Proposition 8 are unconstitutional, but these decisions won't be made because of changed profile pictures. They will be influenced by the testimonies of those brave enough to present their cases and those who leave their computer screens to protest in public.