Online Campaigning: What Do Your Actions Really Achieve?

The digitalisation of our world has brought about many efficiencies – from the increase of access to information via the world wide web, to the expansion of communicative capacities via social media. We have, inevitably, also seen the emergence and progression a phenomenon known as online campaigning.

We have all engaged with it in some way or another – whether consciously or unwittingly. In the wake of a topical social issue or recent global tragedy, we add filters, create hashtags, share posts and like captions. Afterwards, we feel positive and compassionate; we feel like we have made a difference. But what do our actions really achieve? Could our actions, in fact, be doing more harm than good?

A distinct memory that I have of online campaigning involves a myriad of red, white and blue. Variations of the French flag permeated my Facebook newsfeed back in November 2015 as more and more of my friends updated their profile pictures – “#prayforparis” read the captions. While I internally commended my friends for their efforts in showing solidarity and compassion, I felt a sense of unease. It seemed to me that by simply adding a hashtag, I would trivialise the pain and loss experienced by those affected. That by adding a filter, I would imply that the sympathy these people deserved equated to a simple mouse click. Moreover, even if I added a filter, I knew that the only people who would see it were my Facebook friends, none of which lived in or were visiting France at the time. So, I concluded that adding a filter would be nothing more than a self-satisfying, unproductive attempt to show others how compassionate and worldly I was.

I do not doubt or question the motives behind acts of online campaigning – I do, however, question the method in which these motives are expressed. While being on the other side of the world does complicate one’s ability to evince empathy and support, more effective and appropriate responses to the aforementioned tragedy could have included: checking in with affected family and friends and, on a tangible level, donating to emergency relief organisations that responded to the Paris attacks.

Captions and filters in response to tragedy act as harmless facilitators of support, strength and solidarity, albeit ineffective in conveying compassion appropriately. The ALS ice bucket challenge, on the other hand, is an example of online campaigning that perhaps did more harm than good.

The ice bucket challenge was an initiative that entailed pouring ice onto one’s head to raise awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research, and is notorious for the entertaining videos it gave rise to. Once again, my newsfeed was saturated with videos of friends screaming and cheering at the sight of buckets being emptied – however, what was absent from most of the videos was the mention of the cause: ALS. The ice bucket challenge seemed to have unintentionally lost its true purpose as the hysteria occluded the cause at the heart of the challenge. Fortunately, videos that did remain true to the cause through mentions of ALS were extremely effective in raising awareness. I myself admit that prior to the ice bucket challenge I had never heard of ALS – it was these online campaigns which led me to educate myself on such. Where the challenge did generate discussion around ALS, however, it still fell short in reaching its full potential to generate funds. The issue with this form of online campaigning is that by introducing the ice pouring as a ‘challenge’, it exuded the idea that participating was enough. Thus, the campaign, which set out to raise funds, became ineffective.

A closer look reveals that online campaigning is more suited to and effective in showing support for causes, rather than attempting to achieve something tangible. Campaigning online removes geographical boundaries – a huge positive. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can access campaigns and seize opportunities to show support. Moreover, engagement with online campaigns is immediate and efficient – in the wake of a trending social issue, campaigners can seek participants immediately and society can respond instantly.

An example of the way in which an online campaign can operate efficiently and effectively is the current “Vote Yes” campaign. As the postal survey is operating within a short timeframe, online campaigning has been exceptionally effective in keeping the general public up to date by reminding people to sign up to the electoral roll and mail back their responses. In addition, many Facebook users have taken to adopt rainbow “Vote Yes” profile picture frames to show support for the queer community. This is an example of how filters can be effective if they reach appropriate audiences, instead of attempting to sympathise with issues that may be quite incomprehensible to those not affected. Simultaneously, the “Vote Yes” campaign also displays the limitations of online campaigning in that tangible goals have not and will not be directly achieved. Here, the “Vote Yes” campaign merely shows support and provides reminders rather than changing the minds of no-voters or achieving equal rights.

Ultimately, matters of the heart reveal themselves in their own way and in their own time. In response to global tragedies, some of us go to vigils, some donate, and others adopt filters to convey compassion and show solidarity. Similarly, in response to topical social issues, some of us write articles, some go to rallies, and others take to social media to show support and promote justice.

Regardless of the way in which in our motivations transpire, I leave you all to consider this question: “What do our actions really achieve?”