Image - Wikimedia Commons


by Katie Coulthard| @coulthard_katie

Social media is abundant with narcissism. The ‘self’ culture brewing for many years has now well and truly inundated our feeds. We’re obsessed with Instagramming our toast, shameless self promotion adorned with wistful captions on photos questioning our reasons for existence.

Such media has the ability to connect the world in an instantaneous manner and has given rise to the controversial and often dubious idea of ‘hashtag activism’. From the comfort of our couch, we can condemn governments, criticise society, encourage charity or share grief and solidarity with victims of tragedy.

There are plenty of examples from #blacklivesmatter to #YesAllWomen. Social media has provided platforms for society to be activists, even if that is behind the shield of a screen.

However, for all the benefits, social media campaigns can lose sight of their charitable intentions and become a vehicle to satisfy one’s overbearing desire to be seen by others as a decent, caring person.

Who could forget the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

For weeks, every social media network was congested with one minute videos capturing the squeals and expressions of ‘fuck, that’s freezing!’ that inevitably follows dumping iced water on someone’s  head. Presidents, prime ministers, celebrities, uni friends, school classmates, neighbours, nanas and tradies alike took part. We all knew it was ‘for charity’, yet were reluctant to discover more about Motor Neurone Disease or where the pledged funds were actually going, was non-existent. Everyone was doing it, so you were cast as the odd one out if you didn’t participate. But like every recent example of hashtag activism, the care factor was short lived.

Interest died off. The idea – and ALS sufferers – were forgotten about, buried inside social media’s deep time capsule alongside #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. But it’s not just as simple as calling out social media as an untrustworthy means of fundraising or worthwhile campaigning. In a society where we always seem to be time poor, a little consideration for others less fortunate is better than simply ignoring their struggles.

Emma Lovell is a social media specialist and a World Vision blog ambassador. She says social media activism plays a big role in raising awareness of a cause or charity. “Some people are never going to have the opportunity to climb a mountain or see children immunised in Uganda and understand that. Social media is an easier way of sharing it,” she says.

Citing recent natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal, Lovell says social media plays an important role in educating the public and provoking people to dig deep to provide emergency relief.

“Social media from organisations on the ground helped people to understand what was going on.”

“At the time, Nepal needed people to talk, awareness and money – the fact is sometimes charities just need money, not volunteers,” Lovell says.

But social media activism also has a dark side. Hashtag activism thrives off the public’s gullibility and reluctance to question the legitimacy of any awareness campaign. When the entire world appears to be behind a cause, we cannot help but assume it’s authentic.

Sadly, there are people and companies who exploit well intentioned-do-gooders. The #holdacokewithyourboobschallenge for example. Social media reached the pinnacle of class last month by encouraging women to strip down, pop a can of Coke between their  bosoms and post a cleavage filled selfie to ‘raise awareness of breast cancer’.

Sounds helpful, right? Especially when women who bear the brunt of such a brutal disease often require a double mastectomy.
UK woman Aimee Fletcher was so offended by the craze, she posted her own selfie in response. Her bare chest –   bearing the scars of surgery – is a confronting sight but it’s the reality. Hand clutching the infamous can of coke, her raised middle finger is a symbol for how many breast cancer survivors viewed such ‘activism’.

“Breast cancer isn’t sexy or glamorous, it’s not fun,” she says.

“Those campaigns don’t even make any sense. Taking pictures of your breasts is the last thing you would want to do when you have breast cancer- they’re trying to kill you.”

The worst thing about the #holdacokewithyourboobschallenge, was it never originated from anyone remotely concerned with breast cancer. Buzzfeed reports Danny Frost, an American pornography and model recruiter, was the instigator. He never envisioned his idea would morph into a trending hashtag, under the false assumption the risqué photo was for the good of breast cancer sufferers and their families. When it did, he held back on admitting ‘fault’. But is he completely to blame?

Social media is putty in hands for people like Frost – easily to manipulate and blur the truth. Frost started it, but Twitter turned it into a confusing game of Chinese Whispers. We’re all to blame and there’s only one thing to do – learn from our mistakes.

It might be a good idea to use social media activism in the same way we view charity in real life. If someone on the street were to ask for money, you’d question their intentions. The same should apply online.

Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Non-For-Profit Commission (ACNC) Charity Sector, David Locke says it pays to do your research before pledging support for a cause.

“Look at the impact the organisation is making, ask questions and make informed decisions – don’t be naive.”

In the case of social media campaigns which call for donations, Locke recommends consulting the ACNC’s online register of reputable charities, approved by the government. Anything accepted by the commission has been through a rigorous process to determine their legitimacy and benefit to the public.

“Be knowledgeable, know what you’re doing and who you’re supporting,” Emma Lovell says.

So go forth but proceed with caution. Snap your selfie and tweet your tweet, but only if you truly care for the cause beyond its new-found fame.

Don’t jump into the ocean because everyone else is. Question and search where the campaign came from and be sceptical. Your humblebrag status shouldn’t be the sole reason you’re helping. Just be aware the people you’re tweeting about can’t log off from their misfortune like you can.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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