On Oct. 31, 1.4 million people checked in at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, North Dakota on Facebook, in an attempt to thwart alleged local police surveillance. This mass check-in was, for all intents and purposes, an act of online solidarity. It was executed in the hopes of aiding protesters who were at the Standing Rock fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by Energy Transfer Partners, a natural gas and propane company; however, the flood of check-ins represents the perfunctory nature of digital activism in the face of growing police suppression on the frontlines of grassroots movements. Although activism conducted through social media and online forums is well intentioned and easily accessible to many, it is not enough on its own: Its participants must be informed and engaged with the issue at hand, and it must be complemented by traditional activism on the ground.
In the case of Standing Rock, this is not to say that all those Facebook users should have grabbed a flight to North Dakota; however, digital activists need to supplement their online efforts by engaging their community or university about the importance of indigenous rights, or even organizing a local protest against Energy Transfer Partners’ involvement in the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. This is because digital activism demands less engagement, potentially resulting in less informed participants: An online activist need only reach for their laptop and click a button to feel as though they are contributing to a cause.
Furthermore, there is an underlying problem pervading much online activism: Misinformation. Digitally-promoted grassroots movements can obscure the facts behind an issue because the person that is willing to click a button is often not on the ground nor invested enough to read more about it. Kony 2012 is a primary example of digital protest gone wrong, as many online users did not realize the source of the information was fraudulent. The Kony video, produced by the Invisible Children charity organization, took the internet by storm, calling for the capture of war criminal Joseph Kony in Uganda. The disturbing part of this online call to action was that no one questioned the charity—which was criticized for its lack of accountability—or the information on Kony, and blindly donated their money. Kony 2012 exposed the dangerous side of digital activism: It can suffer from a lack of knowledge among its followers and promote hysteria.
The number of physically engaged and present protesters is an important variable in a protest’s ability to achieve its goals. During the 2011 protests in Egypt calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, digital platforms were used for organizational purposes; however, the protests’ most prominent impact came out of the sheer size of crowds that convened in Tahrir Square. The physical confrontations between thousands of protesters and police in Cairo streets garnered worldwide media coverage and led to the dismantling of the corrupt Mubarak government. This is what can be achieved when a group of citizens physically demonstrate, interact, and even commit civil disobedience in the society at large. If organizers and participants during the Egyptian demonstrations had limited themselves to digital platforms, the impact of their activism would have been significantly less.
While digital platforms can help reach a larger audience than would have been possible without social media, the rapid spread of awareness does not require users to be informed on and engaged with an issue. Like most trending online content, what a person clicks on one day in solidarity may be forgotten the very next. There is no requirement to follow through with online support for a cause.
Events in which the protesters inform themselves, are physically present, and talk to people in person about the given issue are more likely to have a lasting impact and encourage participants to fight for lasting changes. Digital activism is not the most impactful or knowledgeable means of creating lasting change on an issue, government, or society at large. Although key for organizational purposes, it does not demand that which is most important in any collective protest—an engaged individual. This engagement means being physically present in a public space; it means interacting with people who represent a variety of ideas, and it means being informed.