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The shallowness of 'clicktivism'

What we've seen in Gaza over the last week is an escalation of a systemic oppression of one group of people over another. The images we've seen from there have been unsettling. The reports are harrowing. The suffering of ordinary people deeply disturbing. But thousands of miles away, many are immobilised by the horror emanating from Gaza. Many want to do something, anything, to help but don't know quite where to begin.

And in reaction, we've seen an outpouring of "#Gaza" themed debate and discussion on social media.

Some of my friends who would not know an election was happening even if Helen Zille kissed them on the lips have shown a remarkable aptitude for political activism. They've changed their profile pictures, posted pictures, and advertised global campaigns to raise awareness of the siege on Gaza. The fact that military assaults on Gaza elicit this kind of awareness is remarkable in itself. And certainly something must be said about the way in which "sexy" causes like Gaza, inspire this level of online engagement, while others lie ignored.

But it is the way the debate, discussion and activism has been channelled online, that merits scrutiny as well.

You can change your profile picture to raise awareness, share videos and articles and piggyback on protest action by solidarity groups by simply liking a page. Making a difference does feel rather easy. But does this kind of contribution to Gaza, or any other cause for that matter, amount to anything more than a quick click that smoothens over a prickly conscience without too much fuss?

A study published in the Journal of Sociological Science earlier this year, found that the majority of people who 'like' a Facebook page for a cause don't follow up that gesture with a donation. The study found that return rates for charities and campaigns on Facebook can be a tenth of those of more traditional routes such as solicitation through mail.

Analysing the 'Save Darfur' page on Facebook, it was found that of the one million-plus people who had liked the page, less than 3,000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years. In comparison, the broader Darfur campaign raised more than $1 million in 2008 alone. The authors of the study feel that the Facebook page simply lends the "illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing".

It's easy to click, but it's also just as easy to disengage.

More than a million people like the 'Save Darfur' page. But it is also these kinds of numbers, the crowd, the public act of liking the page, of being seen to engage with a cause that characterises much of our online engagement with causes. It is not activism at all. It is a few strategically placed clicks in the eyes of the people we wish to impress.

As well as political principles, activism is rooted in compassion for others. It is rooted in a strong feeling of sympathy for people who are suffering and a corresponding desire to help them. And while activism in itself is not above criticism, much of the activism we're seeing online for Gaza, for example, appears not to be about Gazans at all - it is an exercise in negotiating a feeling of helplessness. It is an exercise in indulging ourselves.

What we need to explore is when our activism becomes 'clicktivism', when it becomes less authentic, less about the people we are supposed to be advocating for and more about ourselves. And perhaps a thorough exploration of the pitfalls of such activism would help us refine online activism, so that it is coupled with real life action and not confined to a click or two.

Because surely the alternative, staying quiet, ignoring human tragedy unfold, is worse? But perhaps too this clouding of self-interest is inescapable. If we were indeed truly moved by the plight of Palestinians living under occupation or warnings of an impending famine in South Sudan, would we actually be allowing these violations of our humanity to continue?

Right now, however, a lot of online activism feels like a highly contrived flash mob. And just like a flash mob, there may be nothing left to see when the performers retreat back into the crowd.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). Follow her on Twitter @khadijapatel

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