It seems like ages since the “I Agree with Markwell” campaign blew up, not only on Northwestern’s sidewalks but also online: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, you name it. The social media conversation isn’t limited by the boundaries of Northwestern either. Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 documentaries have sparked both formal and informal discussions on campus. From debating religious beliefs to exposing atrocities in Uganda, student activists are in tune with web advocacy.
At a school with more student groups than anybody knows what to do with, there’s no shortage of people passionate about activism. Many student advocacy groups also consider the best ways to promote their causes, not only in person, but also online.
Former Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators Public Relations Chair Amanda Mather played a large role in jumpstarting the organization’s web presence.
She points out social media’s obvious appeal in getting the group’s messages across. How- ever, she and others are careful to associate it with other techniques — the most famous of which may be putting SHAPE stickers on free condoms.
“You can sit and [promote a cause] in your dorm room,” the Communication senior says. “You don’t have to go out to flyer. You don’t have to go out and write a press release and beg someone to cover your event.”
At the same time, Mather cautions other students to avoid using status updates and tweets, which she refers to as “slacktivism,” or activism designed for people in such a way that all they need to do is hit “like” or mindlessly throw PayPal a few bucks that may or may not go towards feeding starving children in Africa. While that strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t mandate they give much thought about who they’re giving money to and why.
SESP Professor Dan Lewis studies how technology relates to civic engagement for teenagers and 20-somethings. He’s trying to identify patterns that explain why social media mobilizes people but can also amplify the very problem it’s meant to stop.
“When does it bum you out and have you sitting in your room looking at YouTube and not doing anything, and when does it get you involved and actually bring about change?” he asks.
Although social media plays a big role on campus, Lewis and student leaders agree the activism debate is more complicated than just understanding a good balance of on- and offline media. While messing up a web-based campaign may still get the word out without solving a problem completely, making mistakes on the ground can cause tangible harm.
“I think what can be potentially problematic is that activism denotes a certain kind of work in the sense that it’s very ‘I just want to go do good,’” says Global Engagement Summit Co-Director and Weinberg senior Sarah Freeman. “You need to question your intentions, you need to think about what the implications of your actions are and what they can be before you go into a situation.”
Although activism isn’t what Freeman sees herself doing long-term, she knows a fair share about the topic from GES and year-round training. Noeli Serna, co-director of Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights, has similar ideas about the pros and cons of social media. Using it to market campaigns and to provoke thought seems to be the norm on campus.
“From what I’ve seen, I feel like everyone takes a very similar approach to social media,” says Serna, a Weinberg junior.
Freeman does not classify herself as an activist. Rather, she sees herself as someone who wants to be more involved in crisis relief by providing aid on the ground in eastern Africa. This comes after her study abroad experience in Uganda last year, where she learned firsthand about the country in a way that most people on both sides of the Kony 2012 fence never have.
She encourages Northwestern students to be open-minded about effective tools for change on and off the web. “I love having my worldview rocked,” she says. “If the end goal is positive social im- pact, there’s got to be a better way to do it than what we do already.”