Pina Sadar: #activism in 140 characters

The media and our subconscious are being overwhelmed by shocking images of the war in Gaza. We helplessly sit in front of the screens with lumps in our throats, witnessing the fates of civilians whose suffering is just a click away from the safe comfort of our living rooms. Most of try to help the wounded children, crying mothers and broken families in the same way – by spreading misery, awareness, anger and rebellion through online channels. While many consider the internet to be a new public space for important activist interventions, the cynics remain in doubt about the power of activism limited to resonant hashtags and 140 characters.

Gaza (photo via Wikimedia)
Gaza (photo via Wikimedia)

In the case of Gaza, the scope of “clicktivistic” campaigns can be observed in the frequency of posts on social media, especially Twitter. In less than a month, the digital community has supposedly posted more than eleven million Pro-Palestinian tweets under the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack, #PrayforGaza and #SupportGaza, demanding an immediate stop to brutal military operations. In addition to the resolute pro-Palestinian activists who have been expressing their sentiments via different media for many years, the authors of these tweets have been joined by a less expected profile of activists.

The most notable support offered to the campaign for free Palestine came from celebrities – from Penelope Cruz to Rihanna – who diverted the attention of the media for a few moments from red carpets in Hollywood to the war debris in the Middle East. In contrast to viral campaigns similar to #bringbackourgirls a few months earlier, Gaza remains less popular among the celebrity community, especially on the western side of the Atlantic. Because of a controversial polarisation of the American public into Israeli and Palestinian supporters, a strong political stance could dangerously cause the Hollywood stars to fade away. For this reason, most famous supporters are elegantly avoiding the political dimensions of the burning issue while loudly and exclusively supporting the well-being of civilians.

So, for example, the teen star Selena Gomez quickly justified the posting of a photo with an appeal to her fans to pray for Gaza by saying: “And of course to be clear, I am not picking sides. I am praying for peace and humanity for all.” Even though posts concerning Gaza earned celebrities more criticism and negative comments than earlier digital campaigns, the message remains the same: celebrity online activism is mostly an effective promotional tool for displaying the humanitarianism of individuals in the media spotlight. The resistance to systems of power is only of secondary importance, or in most cases, does not even exist. While “the beautiful and the famous” are certainly an effective medium for spreading awareness among young fans, whose reading activities are limited to pages sprinkled with celebrity stardust, this kind of self-promotion can of course hardly fit the definition of activism.

Beside celebrities, the group of unlikely activists also includes the usually apathetic young, whose political engagement rarely exceeds a recreational walk to the polls in good weather. Suddenly sunsets and sneezing cats on their online profiles were replaced by flags of red, green, white and black, raised fists and photos of disfigured children. Have they become activists?

(photo via Flickr)
(photo via Flickr)

Some of them may have been encouraged by online campaigns to engage in local activist organisations, some perhaps joined protests on the streets in bigger cities and donated to the children of Gaza, but for the majority “activism” remained a 2-dimensional concept. Although, in contrast to celebrities, their reasons for new profile pictures and occasional posts were not of a self-promotional nature, these sorts of campaigns cannot be understood as serious calls or movements towards a reconstruction of world politics. In most of cases – to be honest – the posts function as a means of clearing our conscience and subconscious with the illusion that the click of a button can contribute to a better future for Palestinians and towards a society in which we could one day raise our own children.

Equally problematic is the selective attention of recreational activists. While Gaza aroused a feeling for world peace and humanity among millions of web users, the majority of conflicts will forever remain outside the scope of their attention. World peace unavoidably includes children from the Rohingya Muslim minority, who have been the target of cruel ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Bangladesh for years. And the Syrians, South Sudanese and the victims of police brutality and innumerable other groups who remain innocent victims of systematic violence. The self-proclaimed ambassadors of world peace have nothing to say about them.

Despite several counter-arguments the extent of online support – in its quantity and the diversity of its supporters – definitely cannot be treated only in a negative way. Although the majority of the occasional activists will never grasp the political and social implications of the conflict, the mere fact that the world media have reached masses of people who have for years completely ignored the Palestine question is a kind of success. At the same time, old definitions of activism need to be adapted. Society changes and activist methods are also exposed to alteration. Yellow ribbons from the chests of protesters have been repinned on the digital walls of online media. Angry shouts on the streets and the waving of banners remain the same, but transformed into binary code. Streets and main squares as the most exposed mass public spaces have acquired a virtual twin in the online media.

The analogies between the old activism and the activism of the digital era are of course exaggerated. In recent decades, physical resistance on the streets has by no means lost its significance. In the case of Gaza in particular, street demonstrations have been numerous – from Teheran and Vancouver all the way to Cape Town and London. The internet not only plays an important role in organising protests but also in documenting these kinds of campaigns. In addition to flags and banners people are also raising their mobile phones, which send images from rallies out into the wide digital world. This way, not only those who share space and time with the activists are able to see the messages from demonstrations, but also those who are within reach of online channels.

When listing the positive dimensions of digital activism, we must not forget what is probably its most important virtue. Clicktivism has not only mobilised the celebrity community and online-media-obsessed youth, but it has also recruited individuals and groups of people who usually do not have access to the mass public sphere – in the case of Gaza, the Palestinians themselves. Palestinian doctor Belal Dabour and the 16-year-old Farah Baker are only two cases of activists whose voice could not have reached the European-American public without Twitter. Thanks to them and their Palestinian co-activists, statistical data and newspaper images were filled with human voices, faces and first-person stories.

We cannot and must not consider the internet as a destructive force which neuters real activism. We can honour it as a welcome tool with considerable potential for pointing out violations of human rights, shaking the levers of power and enabling mass campaigns – including street rallies. In this case, we must not forget that the core of activism is neither the methodology of resistance nor its scope. The essence of resistance is a genuine desire for change, a vision of how to shift, break and reassemble unfair forces of power. And the dedication to fervently pursue this vision until it is realised… even when hashtags disappear from the scale of the ten most trending Twitter topics.


Author: Pina Sadar.


Title photo: Kelley Bozarth


Translated by: Nina Maslovarić.



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