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TMCNet:  The Evolution of Activism - From the Streets to the Internet

[June 09, 2014]

The Evolution of Activism - From the Streets to the Internet

(AllAfrica Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) IT began like the thousands of campaigns that are becoming popular on social media every day.

Only that this one involved a subject close to people's hearts and was so sentimental for most people to look away. #Bring back our girls, hash tag became a sensation on social media.

It sucked in people from all walks of life, celebrities, rights activists, students, Presidents, the young and old all took to social media to demand for the return of school girls who were abducted by Boko haram a terrorist group in Nigeria.


In the wake of this trend, many have questioned the effectiveness of social media activism. They believe more action is needed when dealing with serious issues instead of seating in the comfort of our offices and homes to tweet and post Facebook messages.

"At no point will the kidnappers go to social media and think that it is time to hand back the girls due to the tweets and Facebook posts," says Benimana, a teacher in Kigali.

But when you look back in history, the current social media activism is just an evolution. Since the onset of civilisation, people have always stood up against issues they believe have no place in society.

Centuries ago our forefathers stood up against the colonialists to reclaim what they believed was rightfully theirs - using sticks and stones - mostly at the expense of their own lives.

After the establishment of Africa's self rule, not everyone agreed with the post-independence governments.

Groups and movements of activism emerged to oppose oppression. In some African countries, the activists would boycott government services and in others, they would take to the streets with banners and posters in tow - to take a stand to show what they stood for.

But how many people in this era have it in them to put a point across by walking on the streets in protest? Instead most people, mainly the elite class have now established a home on social media platforms like Twitter and Face book. It's an era of arm chair activism.

Shadrack Nsengyumva, a 42-year-old high school teacher, is of the opinion that the noise on social media should be complemented by practical action.

"Social media activists should put their actions where their words are. That is how it will be effective, otherwise it will only be tweets and hashtags," the teacher argues.

Born in the 1960s, Caritas Benimana says that though popular, social media activism only goes as far as diagnosing problems but offers no remedy for the situation.

The lecturer at a local private university gives the example of the activism back in the days, which he says was more practical and realistic.

"During the struggle for independence, our forefathers not only talked about the problems they were facing under the colonial rule but went ahead to do something about it. Mandela and Martin Luther King not only spoke about Apartheid and racism, they also put their lives on the line for the cause. They led protests and barricaded roads." Benimana's thoughts on social media activism is that it has led people to believe that once you are loud about something, then that becomes a solution but that is not how interventions in matters like terrorism work.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of Indian nationalism in the former British-ruled India employed peaceful civil disobedience to lead India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

Gandhi attempted to practice nonviolence and truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. He was imprisoned for many years, on many occasions, in both South Africa and India. He undertook long fasts as means of both self-purification and social protest.

"To find a person willing to go days without eating because a terrorist group abducted girls is unlikely. How many people can honestly fast to get governments to step up and find those Nigerian girls? The furthest they can go is probably a day, and that is if they even try," says Jackson Agaba, a cell phone repairer in Uganda.

Boko Haram, the Nigerian-based terrorist group responsible for abducting the missing 276 school girls in the north eastern part of the country aged between 8 and 15 on April 15 2014, added salt to the wound when they returned to the same area a few days after and kidnapped eight more girls. The terrorist group probably had a plan to deal with resistance from security forces and angry villagers demanding their daughters back.

What they did not see coming was the activism and 'noise' on social media that was born out of their actions.

There have been numerous social media campaigns in recent times, locally and internationally, some gain a massive following while others only get as far as their initiators.

Celebrated Barcelona football club player, Danie Alves, while on the pitch against Villa Real football club had a banana thrown at him, he responded to the racist attack rather surprisingly by picking up the banana, peeling it and proceeding to eat it.

His actions inspired the rise of an anti-racism campaign where numerous coloured people posted images of themselves eating a banana on Twitter and Instagram. Bananas became a symbol of a stand against racism. Not like they had a choice anyway.

Where social media activism has worked: During the 20th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, #kwibuka20 was all over social media, it is through this trending topic that Rwandans comforted each other and sent out messages of encouragement while commemorating the Genocide.

That is the power of social media in the 21st century, from the comfort of one's seat at home or in the office; they can take part in a call for action or a revolution.

The impact has at times been noticeable and other times not.

However despite social media activism's popularity, not everyone sees its relevance, some see it as a classical middle class trait which is characterised by pointing out problems and talking about them but doing little to provide solutions.

But talking to the youth who make up the largest part of the social media activists crowd, they obviously differ with Benimana, they see it as a show of support, and willingness to do something to help out people in difficult circumstances.

"Though some will not see it that way, through social media, you can rally leaders and policy makers to take action to intervene. Social media has caused leaders and business operators to answer to people they are accountable to. People have been able to demand for explanations for substandard services," says 27-year-old Christian Gatete who previously made a living by handling social media for various firms on a temporary basis.

Given a chance, Gatete can list instances when thanks to social media, change took place. He can tell you of cases where government officials have been put on the spot and had to answer thanks to social media campaigns. He can tell you of the incident in South Africa recently when the Nigerian president was booed during the South African inauguration for having not rescued the girls.

"The beauty of social media activism is that even those who are not close to the scene can take part, were it not for the social media campaigns during the bring 'back our girls' campaign, I doubt countries like France, USA and China would have come forth to help. It is because of that that they saw the urgency of their interventions," Gatete says.

There are also hybrid takes in debate on social media activism's importance; that it should be accompanied by actions, that it should not only be about being loud and leaving it at that.

Whether through banners, hunger strikes or hash tags, some of these protests will cause change while others will fade into oblivion.

But is it really how we demonstrate or should we find ways that will give us the required results? The hash tag is still under a heated debate on whether it holds any water but one thing's for sure - activism will not stop with it.

Do social media campaigns have any significance? Social media campaigns are also an important tool to gather information about a particular topic and assist in decision making.

Take the case of Kwibuka 20 for example; the campaign was the converging point off all activities taking place during the commemoration. Planners and organisers and leaders would use them to track the progress of their activities and know where they need to do more.

Marc Gwamaka, actor and co founder of Walk to Remember Locally when we do social media campaigns say on the quality of services, it awakens the consciousness of organisations and service providers and shakes them up. They may not make changes immediately as would have been expected but it is a good introduction to the topic. It gets the conversation going which will eventually lead to action being taken.

Marie-Ange Rukundo , social media activist & editor at Service Mag If you look at some of the things happening around the country, it is social media that gives people an avenue to have a voice in matters that affect them and bring out their opinions. It is clear that policy makers and leaders are usually looking to see what the public thinks through social media because after a campaign, changes are made.

Gilbert Rwabigwi - director of Ejo Social Media My reason for taking part in social media campaigns such as save South Sudan is that it is one of the ways of awakening leaders and the world to things that are happening around them to intervene. Social media campaigns could have been one of the reasons why some countries decided to take part in efforts to save the kidnapped girls in Nigeria.

Fiona Mbabazi - TV anchor Popular social media campaigns Kwibuka 20 Was popular during the 20th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi where Rwandans and friends of Rwanda conveyed messages of goodwill and encouragement to survivors and also honoured victims Kony 2012 A social media campaign back in 2012 that sought to raise awareness of the existence and need to capture Ugandan Rebel Joseph who was allegedly recruiting child soldiers.

Bring back our girls A campaign popular on Twitter and Facebook calling for the immediate release of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Save South Sudan An outcry by the international community calling for an intervention to end atrocities and mass killings in the republic of South Sudan where ethnic cleansing has killed thousands.

Free Aljazeera journalists Began after the arrest of celebrated Aljazeera TV journalist, Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt which was interpreted by many as infringement of media freedom.

The Africa we want Was popular during the 49th African Development Bank Annual meeting as a plat form to suggest on ways to have a prosperous continent.

Copyright The New Times. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).

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