Where is the Body in Digital Activism? By Bhakti Shringarpure

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-11-09-17-amDuring the recent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, staged by the Standing Rock Sioux, Facebook users were asked to “check in” to the site of the protest taking place at the reservation. Ostensibly, it was meant to throw police surveillance off track since Facebook locations were being used to track and arrest protesters. As the post to check-in went viral, it generated a counterpoint response almost simultaneously. Blogs decrying social media solidarity that appears lazy and without any actual risk or effort involved sprung up within hours of the check-in going viral. “No, Checking In at the Standing Rock Pipeline Protests on Facebook Will Not Confuse the Police. It’s a waste of time,” wrote Mother Jones. Another friend cringed on social media: “Solidarity is great, and so is media attention, but if you really want to help protesters: donate to the Sacred Stone Camp Legal Defense Fund, call elected officials, or fly your ass over there if you’re able – your body is a lot more useful than your “check-in” at Standing Rock.” Elsewhere, an article mocking the phenomenon appeared: “ISIS Flees After Millions of Americans ‘Check In’ to Mosul on Facebook.” It had not even been 12 hours.

Debates about digital activism have always questioned the significance of the protester’s body. The Arab Spring was heralded as crucial in allowing for a “digital revolution” to take root. But in hindsight, the moment of cyber euphoria seemed to have yielded mixed outcomes. Though digital media was seen as a catalyzing force and has resulted in an extraordinary collective convergence in Egypt and Tunisia, it was also seen as having negative effects; most notably the counter-use by governments to intercept dissent and use the digital for amping up surveillance. More recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement started as a hashtag on social media and has since been used 12 million times according to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center. That the hashtag became a movement and that the movement is now ushering in the most resistant and radical thinking around race in the USA is not debatable. Yet the actual role of social media is moot unless the physical impact of these hashtags eventually becomes apparent, and this can generally be gauged through the amount of actual protesters, or through shifts it may bring about in local or governmental spheres.

While digital activism has certainly become entrenched in individual and institutional realms, it seems to have also given rise to the narcissistic clicktivist. Detached from any real action and armed with no more than a do-gooder mentality, the clicktivist tends to like, share, tweet, tumblr and post generously but is seen as not necessarily showing up when it counts and when the going gets tough. It is argued that their contribution cannot be ignored and that if solidarity goes viral so does the cause. screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-11-09-31-amThe Dakota Access Pipeline check-in protests on Facebook were less interesting because of the virality of the phenomenon itself; but they were unusual because they illustrated how much we have come to dislike the online activist, how quickly there has come about an “obvious” knowledge that there is a real dichotomy between the body and the digital. In my opinion, the significance of this particular clicktivist is yet uncertain, and I hope we can arrive at more incisive understandings of this phenomenon.

This conversation will be taken up in some depth by the Digital Humanities reading group sponsored by the UConn Humanities Institute. We will meet on November 17th, Thursday from 12-2pm at the Homer Babbidge Library, 4th floor, room 4-153. We will be working through a variety of readings that include the Black Lives Matter syllabus, surveys that ask how social media users see, share and discuss race and the rise of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, skeptic critics such as Robert McChesney, Micah White and Jessy Hempel who make strong arguments against online activism, and academics who have engaged in longer and sustained ways with the impact of these new media.

This meeting is open to all faculty and graduate students. Please email bhakti.shringarpure@uconn.edu for the full list of readings.

Bhakti Shringarpure is Assistant Professor of English and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.