A spate of school sexual molestation cases in China have been uncovered recently by the media there. Over a 20-day period, eight cases of schoolkids being sexually molested by faculty or government officials have been reported, bringing forward the very important issue of child abuse in the nation.
Disgusted and outraged Chinese citizens started an online campaign condemning the assaults by adults who are in a position of trust or power. But some Chinese netizens have taken to their Weibo accounts to participate in a strange "social activism" against such crimes, telling principals and other would-be assaulters to “get a room with me, let go of your students!” and giving their contact information.
Of course, these would-be activists don’t actually want to be contacted -- the campaign was designed to troll criminals via a kind of “pick on someone your own size” message. Ye Haiyan started the trend that has since gone viral on the social media platform. She took a picture of herself holding a sign that read “School principal: Get a room with me. Let go of the students!” followed by her name and contact information. Soon enough the phrase "get a room with me" was a top trending topic on Weibo, as people began posting pictures of themselves doing the same.
While this particular campaign had a serious goal, it wasn’t long before some users turned it into a joke, a fate that seems almost inevitable when it comes to the Internet.
Because of this, social media "activism" is largely ineffective.
While social media allows people to support a cause much more easily, it also facilitates desensitization to activism and a detachment from or a cause. So many campaigns are currently floating around the Internet, whether it is a White House petition, a Facebook page, or Twitter hashtag campaign. It’s easy to affix your name at the bottom of a petition condemning Nike’s employment of children in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. Less simple? Traveling to an Indian garment factory and exposing the substandard conditions children are working in. One of those things will make you more invested in the cause than the other.
In addition, with so many causes vying for attention, Internet users experience sensory overload trying to figure out what is important versus what is easy versus what is trendy.
It has become difficult to sift through the onslaught of campaigns on the Web, like changing a profile picture in support of marriage equality (easy, trendy, but probably ineffective), and others that solicit Facebook likes in exchange for actual good, like the pizza chain’s "Like and share this Facebook post and Papa John’s will donate $1 to the Salvation Army” (easy, not very trendy, but arguably effective).
Even for causes that promise some type of tangible proof of your support, like a monetary donation per retweet or like, who is policing them to follow through? Certainly not the people who just threw a like on a page with a “why not” attitude as they were scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. You’ve done your part, shared the link, so now you can move on to that picture of your friend from high school who lost 80 pounds.
Aside from raising awareness, social activism can't really be effective in helping a cause because of the nature of the Internet, the ways things can be twisted and co-opted. Like in the most recent Weibo campaign, it wasn’t long before pictures of guys’ naked backsides and scantily clad women surfaced and, not surprisingly, began getting the most attention. Probably not what Ye Haiyan had in mind.
It seems that social activism, though useful for raising awareness, always takes a turn when the symbols of awareness become their own topic of conversation, which detracts from the main issue. The likes and retweets for any given cause are just about as effective as a bumper sticker or wearing a pin.
An example of this is the now-famous marriage equality symbol, the red equal sign, a special edition of the Human Rights Campaign’s regular blue-and-yellow colored equal sign, which became a story in itself, making marriage equality somewhat peripheral. Soon enough, new parody versions of the symbol started popping up. Then, the equal sign took on the form of two rifles, as a sign of support for an American’s constitutional right to bear arms. Parodying activism with activism for an unrelated cause? How meta of you, Internet. The entire thing spiraled out of control with an onslaught of variations.
Social media activism generally has one purpose: to put a cause on the "front page" of the Internet for a short period of time, and while that may sometimes be the kind of support a cause needs, it’s also less effective than one might think. The Internet shortens the life span of a news story, a viral video or, in this case, a cause. After a few weeks or less, the world moves on and so do you.