POLITICS

How do we define activism in the digital age?

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Can social media consistently produce changemakers, or just serial slacktivists at best? File photo from the September 2017 Stop Tyranny rally at Luneta Park. Photo by JL JAVIER

In an attempt to inject some purpose into reality TV, American network CBS announced “The Activist” in September 2021: a show that subjects six activist and celebrity tandems to a series of challenges, in the hopes of drastically improving universal healthcare, education, and the environment. Outputs would be judged based on online engagement metrics and the input of their random panel of hosts, namely Usher, Julianne Hough, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Those who emerge victorious advance to the G20 Summit to get world leaders on board and raise funds to champion their causes on a larger scale.

Needless to say, critics panned the program based on concept alone, claiming that it was a great disservice to generations of activists. While the network and its producers quickly apologized and presented an alternative in the form of a documentary, the very idea of putting a single figurehead at the forefront of a movement and quantifying the impact they make across communities sparked conversation on how we view activism in the digital age.

Social media has undeniably played a vital role in radicalizing the current generation. Aesthetically palatable infographics and explanatory TikTok videos have made decades’ worth of progress digestible enough for the most feeble attention span, while platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow rapid mobilizations of volunteers to take place as a response to any ideological stimulus. But can this compare to actual work being done on the ground? Can this consistently produce changemakers, or just serial slacktivists at best?

Driven by action

Political and economic institutions have historically exploited and excluded the proletariat from conversations that concern their lives and means of livelihood. This has pushed certain groups to take their conviction to the streets, as was the case during the first recorded demonstration in the Philippines, where over 100,000 workers staged a massive rally, calling for an eight-hour working day.

Today, people don’t even have to be a part of the affected community to be compelled to take action. This is exactly what makes activism a highly collaborative, rather than a competitive, process, contrary to what “The Activist” posits. All proponents seek grassroots solutions that ultimately aim to dismantle abusive systems that have only sought to service the power elite.

"When you are oppressed, you must achieve something extraordinary to attain wealth and power and thus, behave like your oppressor. But this is not the future activists want. We want something more liberating, inclusive. We want the marginalized to share power.”

“I guess when you are in a conflictual mode of change, it serves as a threat for those who want to preserve the status quo,” said Dr. Jean Lindo, chairman of Gabriela Southern Mindanao. “Our society is brainwashed that one achieves change only through internal behavioral means. When you are oppressed, you must achieve something extraordinary to attain wealth and power and thus, behave like your oppressor. But this is not the future activists want. We want something more liberating, inclusive. We want the marginalized to share power.”

Lindo herself has been red-tagged in the past, considered by the government as “an enemy of the state, a terrorist, a berdugo.” Students are not spared from this kind of treatment: former League of Filipino Students (LFS) Baguio chairperson Cheska Kapunan saw her name, among many others, brandished on warning signs hung around the city. “We are often accused of neglecting our education, brainwashing the youth, and recruiting them to fight the government,” she shared. “But last time I checked, a bunch of students holding up placards calling for an end to tuition fee increase is an essential facet of a democratic state. It is not a terrorist act.”

These blatant forms of red-tagging are founded on the dangerous assumption that ending local armed conflict in the country starts with criminalizing all forms of dissent — even those that come from the harmless and unarmed. As a result, we bear witness to a vicious trend of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. There are still no recent and complete statistics, as “the figures that we have do not capture the entire picture because there are a series of underreported and unreported cases of human rights violations among activists,” explained CHR co-commissioner Gwen Gana. “Worst of all, the government has yet to respond to these and ensure investigation and prosecution through a robust and strong justice system.”

Shaped by socials

Since becoming a political tool, social media has repackaged activism as an avenue for individual — rather than collective — action and rebranded it as something to be revered rather than repulsed. The sociopolitical landscape we operate in has changed immensely in a Duterte and post–Trump era, requiring us to be as cognizant of what’s happening around us as we are vocal about where we stand. In fact, those who fail to do so much as share an Instagram story against rape culture or sexual assault can be instant victims of cancel culture.

The incentives we bestow to those deemed “woke” enough are all-encompassing — from likes and shares that serve as currency on every corner of the internet, to actual platforms and resources handed by media outlets such as CBS, among other reputable establishments. But if such online initiatives are not coupled with in-person engagement, these might be more fueled by a need to assert one’s political correctness than anything else. Terry Nguyen sums it up best in an article for Vox: “The intent, identity of the creator, and accuracy of [such posts] matter a great deal, but more often than not, that nuance is lost on the average [social media] user — flattened into a quick share or repost with a hasty tag as they scroll on and on.”

This so-called slacktivism has taken on a more insidious form over the years, where “subsects of advocates use [causes] for their own gain, to the point where you don’t even know what they’re fighting for anymore,” as explained by Kara Angan, advocacy and communications officer of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections. Teenagers now set up nonprofits to pad their resumes and subsequently qualify for their university of choice, and brands perform allyship in the form of rainbow logo changes and campaign launches for the sake of exposure. Angan elaborates: “It’s a circlejerk of romanticizing and commodifying the struggles of the marginalized. This often takes away very important bases of support that could have gone to grassroots communities and those who work alongside them.”

The proliferation and general tolerance of such behavior has perpetuated a false dichotomy, where doing the bare minimum is frequently painted as good or harmless — a stark contrast to organizers whose calls for reform are often pegged as terrorism. These narratives can encourage patterns of shameless, unwarranted punishment among law enforcement officials, making it even harder for those at the forefront to get their message across.

But in a period where physical restrictions and safety regulations make organized mass gatherings nearly impossible, should all online forms of activism still be questioned and rejected at once? Dr. Louis Ignacio, a Philippine politics and social movements professor from the University of Santo Tomas, thinks otherwise. “I believe we should not discard the value of actions like these. Instead, we should be critical in determining if the intent would be truly beneficial. [After all], one way for activism and its goals to become successful is if it’s popular. Given the available platforms today, activists will really utilize these platforms and maximize its reach.”

At the end of the day, the key to a true inclusive development is putting as many sectors as possible in decision-making and agenda-setting seats, and ensuring that the reforms being lobbied for and passed into legislature are grounded in their personal circumstances rather than dictated by those who cannot fully capture their unique experiences.

This calls us to be more critical of the messages we choose to share, and the manner in which we do it. Rather than resort to meaningless expressions of support, circulate masterposts containing links to credible resources and petitions. Boost minority-owned businesses in need of funds, and post donation channels for affected communities. Most importantly, resist the urge to speak over those at the center of the issue and find ways to elevate their narratives.

It’s not a completely adequate substitute for being on the ground but it’s enough to build on what others have already started. At the end of the day, the key to a true inclusive development is putting as many sectors as possible in decision-making and agenda-setting seats, and ensuring that the reforms being lobbied for and passed into legislature are grounded in their personal circumstances rather than dictated by those who cannot fully capture their unique experiences. The internet must simply serve as a means to reach participants who are willing to discuss how we can turn this into a reality.