Digital Activism - The new wave or nah

Kgalalelo Kedijang | Jun 13, 2019
As a young woman growing up under the most progressive constitution on the continent and where the majority of the people drown due to systematic inequality, I often wonder how the women of 1956 organised themselves without social media.

How they probably had to lie to their husbands as they left their matchbox homes and gathered in frosted community halls for fear of being labelled too “radical”. I imagine a fierce black woman, who now resembles my grandmother, calling for her liberation through song each time self-doubt overwhelmed her fellow comrades. How on earth did 20 000 women arrive on the morning of August 9th with more than 100 000 signatures when we struggle to get 100 000 retweets on Twitter as the online generation?

#TheTotalShutDown has been an example of how social media has become a tool for mobilising the masses and disseminating information as mainstream media seldom reflects the real social situation on the ground as a result of editorial policy-political choices often in the hands of wealthy western patriarchs. The Internet has therefore given us a tool that mainstream media hasn’t: the power for the disenfranchised to express themselves. But how marginalised are these expressions when the use of the internet is not affordable to the working class? This article questions whether digital activism translates to meaningful change on the ground or have we entered into the era of “clickivism”.

Some scholars have suggested that social media is a space for more equal democratic participation than movements in the pre-digital era while others have argued that the internet amplifies those voices with fewer resources. In order to truly investigate the success of digital activism, one is required to interrogate the relationship between social class and online participation in social movements.  While these technologies offer novel opportunities for the emancipation of the oppressed, they have also been exposed as advancing the very social and economic disparities. Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele has rallied behind the #Datamustfall cry and has encouraged South Africans to work together to ensure the decrease in data prices but the message from The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has not been as strong. Although ICASA has made efforts to ensure that data no longer expire and users must now opt-in to be charged out of bundle rates, the battle for out of pocket data charges still continues with no indication on when data will fall. The regulator seems to be concerned with creating an environment in which operators can thrive as opposed to regulating in the public interest.  The unfortunate consequence is that digital activism is to become the political home of more privileged individuals who have regular access to the internet and the funds to create and build digital content with an Instagram aesthetic.

Due to the negative impact of lack of free access to use and benefit from technology, the digital revolution married with the socio-economic conditions of the day, runs the risk of increasing the burden of the digital divide on women, with additional weight for LGBTI+ persons. According to a report entitled Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, factors such as geographical isolation and poor technological infrastructure can prevent women from accessing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in public or at home.

“While these circumstances affect both women and men, for women, physical inaccessibility is exacerbated by the power inequalities and socio-cultural norms that shape their day-to-day lives. Countries with marked gender disparities in education, income, political power and cultural norms frequently limit women’s online access and women’s access to digital resources, such as Internet cafes, is restricted in societies where they have limited visibility in public. Equally, in some countries, men also largely control women’s access to ICTs in the private domain”.

On a global scale, we have witnessed the rise of the digital girl through the #metoo campaign which revealed the rot of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace.  As a result of a viral hashtag, the Internet managed to shrink the size of the world giving ordinary women an opportunity to be part of a global conversation that is beginning to shape national and global policy around safer spaces for women. Closer to home, #countryduty and have become the champions of active citizenship on our digital streets by giving ordinary people a chance to effectivity use social media as a tool for advocacy. While I want to give credit to black twitter for giving light to the black agenda, I can’t help but think of the shareholders of the listed company and how our agenda on the online news and networking service benefits their already bulging pockets.

In order for meaningful activism to stay alive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to collectively make sure that the twiddle of our thumbs mirrors collective offline participation through advocacy if we are ever to embody the history created by activists of our liberation movement.