Digital Activism and Volunteering

Aug 21, 2020   |   Dorina Yee Ye Zhen

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Social Media and the Internet are more pervasive than ever. Our lives are broadcasted on social media, personal stories and events circulated globally as they are facilitated by real-time information sharing. Empowered by technology, people all around are leveraging digital tools to make themselves prominent and influence others.  This has led to the explosion of a phenomenon foreign to us mere years ago: Digital Activism.

What’s the big deal with Digital Activism? Well, Digital Activism is the rage of today.

It is the rage for action to be taken; Rage for long standing but toxic cultures and traditions to be changed; Rage to make someone listen. Netizens use digital tools extensively – Podcasts on Spotify, Instagram Stories and articles on blogs and microblogs – to lobby for social and political change by sharing their opinions and spreading information on hot-button issues. Some individuals take a step further, conducting online crowdsourcing projects or fund-raising campaigns that donate all proceeds to associated SSOs, encouraging followers to sign petitions, and organising online forums to rally like-minded people to brainstorm for ways to make their visions materialise.

This begets the question: How does Digital Activism tie in with Volunteerism?

The term ‘Volunteering’ conjures scenes of kind souls going on the ground to bringing smiles on the faces of beneficiaries. However, beyond the execution of activities, volunteering also extends to researching needs of beneficiaries, designing appropriate activities for them, handling logistics, administrative work and on-ground coverage. The kind of volunteer work one chooses depends on what the individual wishes to achieve, be it to lend his support or grow personally from the experience. As long as you’re contributing your time and efforts to a cause without expecting any compensation, you are a volunteer to the cause! Essentially, volunteerism is about doing something for the betterment of an aspect of society. Digital activism sets out to achieve a similar effect albeit through different platforms and methods such as online movements.

Online movements sparked by volunteer activists are very powerful because they have tremendous speed and reach. Millions of netizens can respond to events as they unfold and provide immediate support, pressuring authorities into acting swiftly. Online platforms also give a voice to the oppressed and disadvantaged who may not have other outlets like boycotts and protests to seek redress for themselves. Disabled people meet many obstacles in attending protests while some groups face higher risks at protests, like African-Americans being more vulnerable to police brutality. Boycotting is also less feasible for those with low income as alternative products are usually more expensive and less accessible. The internet helps to overcome these physical barriers and even offers a cloak of anonymity for those who need to protect their identity. True stories shared on social media strike a chord with involved parties, in turn, inspiring them to share their own experiences, and tug the heartstrings of regular netizens, providing emotional impetus to influence public opinion. Besides, digital activism is highly flexible. An activist can collaborate with other activists or work independently without the oversight of government or corporate-run infrastructures and do not have to commit to any beneficiary or SSO. That means even ordinary people like you and I can be activists to be part of something bigger!

#BlackLivesMatter, #FridaysForFuture, #MeToo are the defining online movements of our generation and have gained much momentum worldwide. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been shared more than 30 million times on Twitter! This year alone, the spate of targeted police violence against African-Americans like George Floyd has been met with unprecedented response from netizens online accompanied with worldwide protests. The #BlackLivesMatter movement addresses racism rooted in America’s colonial history. Closer to home, this has spurred activists in Singapore to link the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the wider problem of discrimination against minority groups in the country. Such includes the plight of migrant workers who live in crowded and unsanitary dormitories. By leveraging on international events, local activists can open dialogue on inter-related issues and therein strongly urge fellow Singaporeans to scrutinise the flaws of our own society while we point to that of others.

Volunteerism takes on a vastly different nature as it is mostly “offline”. It is often unlikely to achieve the same scale of impact as with Digital Activism as it thrives on point-to-point contact. A volunteer can establish close intimacy with the beneficiaries as communication goes both ways and interaction is face-to-face. Volunteers are able to empathise with the stories of their beneficiaries beyond a superficial level and therein customise more targeted solutions to best serve their community’s needs. Quality interaction fosters a great sense of satisfaction and responsibility, developing long-term commitment towards beneficiaries and the cause among volunteers.

In contrast, the success of digital activism can be piecemeal. Firstly, online movements tend to fizzle out quickly as new events take the spotlight. Besides, digital activism runs the risk of ‘Clicktivism’ or ‘Slacktivism’. This is because resharing a post with a tag requires the bare minimum; there is much less effort involved than penning open letters and joining demonstrations on the street. Both situations translate to smaller long-term meaningful impact for the cause supported as influencers and those who simply jump on the bandwagon are less likely to be devoted to the cause and continue following up with it actively after the chapter ends.

Moreover, online movements may only gain traction if picked up by influential people or groups. Usually, only particularly contentious and traditionally popular causes become viral as others drown out in the noise on the Internet. Worse, some netizens and influencers join online campaigns or repost information just to show a token of support but may not truly comprehend the cause nor find ways to provide concrete help to the community. The ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – a neurological disease) Ice Bucket Challenge was a fundraising effort that gained a lot of attention on social media in 2014. Challengers were to dump a bucket of ice water over their heads then challenge friends to do the same in the name of ALS or donate to the cause. Though the challenge was explosively popular, it remains to be seen whether everyone on social media did the challenge to genuinely support the ALS community or to claim bragging rights and acceptance among peers.

Ultimately, both volunteering and digital activism are effected to achieve the same greater purpose of supporting a cause. Each has their merits and can bolster the lesser fulfilled functions of the other. Volunteers can thus achieve the maximum positive impact for the causes they support by complementing both via a two-pronged approach:

  • Volunteering by interacting with beneficiaries personally
  • Being a digital activist by raising awareness on the subject matter and encouraging other like-minded netizens to learn more or even become volunteers themselves!

On broader terms, technology can also bring volunteering efforts to greater heights. In fact, with this year’s turn of events, volunteering has gone digital!  At Heartware Network, our meetings and trainings are still ongoing on virtual platforms to maintain continuity with our beneficiaries and programmes. Perhaps it is time we gear ourselves up for a new and exciting paradigm towards volunteerism.

Food for thought: Beyond digital activism, how else can we contribute to our cause using technology today and in the future? Share your opinions with your fellow volunteers and try to implement these ideas into your programmes where feasible!