Disillusionment, apathy and indifference may be rife but social justice has found a perhaps unlikely ally in digital media that promotes active citizenship. From global petitions for the protection of a rainforest to hashtags calling out sexual abuse and harassment, digital media has shown its potential to encourage active citizenship by engaging with citizens on their everyday platforms. It has never been easier to be an active citizen than it is today.
A few years ago, the Arab Spring’s popular use of Facebook for social mobilisation became a trending topic for everyone from academics to citizen journalists. The use of digital technology and the internet to facilitate social change has continued to grow in the years since then. Today, ordinary people with full-time jobs and social commitments can engage with injustice as easily as with friends.
Back in 2013 I had a teacher whose life’s mission seemed to be destroying Monsanto, the company which had supplied the destructive Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War. He was outraged that Monsanto was still in business and leading the epidemic of genetically-modified organisms flooding our grocery stores. I honestly don’t remember much we did in geography then but this did make an impression on me. More so because he had an action plan: he would log into Avaaz.org, show us the petition against some terrible project Monsanto was responsible for and tell us to join Avaaz.org.
Avaaz is a global network of individuals who campaign for various issues online. This community has not only delivered petitions around the world but has also sponsored adverts and legal teams to promote social justice. It’s been successful in translating online action into offline action.
In 2016 there was national outrage over the racist policies manifesting in dress codes at some high schools. A Facebook friend shared #thetruthwewillproclaim, a petition by Sans Souci pupils demanding the resignation of the principal who they accused of institutionalising racism. That was shared via awethu.amandla.mobi, a sort-of local version of Avaaz. The localisation of digital activist platforms has made issues of social justice much more intimate by allowing South Africans to call out manifestations of racism.
And then, in 2018, came Global Citizen. Out of the blue, everyone was talking about going to Global Citizen, winning tickets and whether it was ethical to sell tickets. Not only was social activism easy; it was now very fashionable. The incentivisation of social activism is something that sets Global Citizen apart. Although it is inherently problematic that the success of Global Citizen is reliant on the individual’s sense of self-interest, it is reflective of the capitalist status quo and enables social movements to compete in such a cut-throat environment. People may share links to Avaaz or Amandla petitions on social media but these platforms have never been such popular points of discussion as Global Citizen. The concert may be over but I’m still a member of Global Citizen. I still get emails, I still take actions and I still use my points to enter draws. In this case, the means seem to justify the end.
And it’s not just these dedicated activist platforms that have changed active citizenship. With radio stations and all kinds of brands now connecting with followers on media like Whatsapp, it’s also easier than ever to call out brands on poor conduct. South Africans all know that it’s those seemingly insignificant things that belie the transformation we’ve been waiting for in the years since the fall of Apartheid. So when popular radio station KFM referred to congestion on “De Waal Drive” one evening, I sent in a Whatsapp informing them that the road was now called “Philip Kgosana Drive”. After a to-and-fro over whether the presenter knew this or not, I messaged back that this was a valuable opportunity to promote transformation. He dismissively bid me a good evening. Then a few seconds later, his colleague reminded listeners of the congestion on “old De Waal Drive, now Philip Kgosana Drive”.
It was one of the best feelings ever and what I had done was so simple! It cost me emotionally because messaging this big company felt exposing but it was all over and done with in a matter of minutes. It was a simple act but I do think it meant something. Racism is such a pervasive issue in our society that transformation must be, too. We cannot sit around and wait for government to deliver victory when these issues confront us in our everyday lives. And thanks to digital media, we can talk back to the powers that be. These may not automatically be platforms for active citizenship but they are for communication; it’s just up to us what we communicate about.
With such an arsenal of unassuming tools, it seems easy to become an active citizen. However, signing petitions and condemning human rights abuses on social media is only a start. Activist platforms are now allowing more meaningful ways of engaging social justice. Take, for instance, Global Citizen’s use of quizzes as an action. Today, consuming misinformation is often an unconscious act, while indifference is often built on ignorance. This makes confronting our knowledge, and expanding it, so much more important. This is the kind of direct, interactive activism that social justice platforms need to expand.
By facilitating the growth of individuals into active citizens, digital media has played a crucial role in building a society that engages with issues of social justice. Here’s to hoping that active citizenship’s trendiness is just the start of major lifestyle changes that promote social justice.