Recent World Health Organisation estimates bring the Ebola outbreak death toll to over 4,500, hardening the urgency of the international public health crisis. While various nations and organisations are scrambling to find a dynamic and effective means of eradicating this quick-spreading, deadly disease, a new batch of self-declared activists have turned to the hashtag for help.
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been bombarded with various hashtags supporting an end to Ebola. From UNICEF’s #StopEbola to investment company Vulcan’s #TackleEbola, organisations are encouraging social media users to post about their support of making Ebola an issue of the past. These organisations hope that the awareness garnered through these campaigns will also result in monetary profits that can then be allocated towards the treatment and prevention of the disease. Though these campaigns do have noble intent, the manner in which they are marketed and subsequently discerned by society is problematic.
The Tackle Ebola website encourages visitors to donate and “let others know you are helping to #TackleEbola”. Instead of also requesting something sustainable like the spread of accurate and vital knowledge about Ebola, the campaign is equating satisfactory activism with the thoughtless copy and pasting of an oversimplified slogan. Organisations marketing this method are giving participants a green light for what can be termed as ‘slacktivism’. Slacktivism involves basic, feel-good activities (like signing a petition or retweeting a hashtag) that are self-centred, require little effort, and make a relatively insignificant impact. It is a selfish notion rooted in individuals’ presentation of a positive image of themselves to society, rather than efficiently addressing the actual problem at hand.
Organisations utilise slacktivism because while the intent of the participants may not be completely pure, it is an easy way to tap into the power of social media. Since they are philanthropic endeavours of minimal effort, social media trends can quickly gain momentum and push the respective issue to the forefront of discussion. It makes sense that organisations would want to capitalise on the nature of viral trends to generate mass awareness of their causes. Though this awareness may lead to spikes in financial gains, the attention and related success is unsustainable because the nature of viral media is fleeting. The oversimplification of complicated concepts, like the Ebola outbreak, reduces the concepts to trends that come and go.
While the organisations may be satisfied with their momentary influxes in donations and the slacktivists may be pleased with their brief flirtation with global issues, we are still not accounting for the most important party involved. What about the individuals at the heart of these crises? What would they think of having issues that are altering their very existence reduced to a hashtag?
The primary problem with these campaigns and the slacktivism they encourage is that they take the dilemmas of the developing world and mould them into something with which the Western world can empathise. This abstraction of the actual issue inevitably leads to misrepresentation, which in turn leads to the marginalisation of both the issue and the hardship it brings upon those affected. Yes, these campaigns may be raising extraordinary amounts of money for those in need. But do the ends justify the means?
The #ShakeOffEbola Challenge is a new and growing social media campaign that stems from a partnership between End Ebola Now (an organisation dedicated to raising money and awareness for the fight against Ebola in West Africa) and Emergency USA (an organisation that provides healthcare to poverty-stricken regions). Inspired by the significant role that dance plays in the West African culture, the campaign urges individuals to upload videos of themselves dancing and then nominate three additional people to complete the challenge. If anyone fails to complete the challenge within 48 hours, the idea is that they must donate to Emergency USA.
West Africa undoubtedly needs monetary assistance to bolster the healthcare facilities and practices that can help contain Ebola; as is true with most social media campaigns, the intent driving #ShakeOffEbola is completely valid. The problem lies in drawing parallels between an international public health crisis and a joyous activity like dancing, as well as in comparing a passive act like posting a hashtag with actual activism. I appreciate that dancing has a strong cultural resonance in West Africa, but this does not mean that its peoples see it as a solution to disease. Ebola is not something one can ‘shake off’, and attempting to simplify such an epidemic is ethically flawed.
#ShakeOffEbola bares many similarities to this past summer’s #IceBucketChallenge that raised money for research of the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Facebook newsfeeds were flooded with videos of friends, family, distant acquaintances, and celebrities soaking themselves with buckets of ice water. However, little of the campaign focused on establishing long-term awareness about ALS. Many supporters are quick to point out that the ALS Association raised over $100 million in 2014, which was four times as much as the organisation raised in 2013. This money will surely widen the scope of the ALS Association’s activity in the immediate future, but the realities of slacktivism make it unlikely 2014’s performance will be indicative of a longstanding trend.
The problem lies in the very root of social media campaigns. What does the #IceBucketChallenge have to do with ALS? What does dancing have to do with containing Ebola? It is easy to participate in fun, ‘philanthropic’ activities and make allusions to our ‘knowledge’ of the struggles in the developing world from our privileged positions in Western society. Nonetheless, it becomes our responsibility to go beyond the expectations of these campaigns and truly try to grasp the magnitude of the issues at hand.
Globalisation-related innovation has led to the rise of the Information Age, which will continue to facilitate the rise of social media campaigns as a replacement for traditional activism. While the social media outlets for slacktivism will change with the moving trends, the concept itself will likely be a permanent fixture in modern-day philanthropy. There is no use in denying the power of social media, so it is best to take advantage of it. Instead of tweeting about the latest campaign for the sake of personal gain, learn about the origins of the respective issue and take the time to pass on this information. Before mindlessly posting that video of you dancing to Facebook in support of the eradication of Ebola, take the time to assess your privilege and include accompanying acknowledgement of your limitations in understanding a crisis to which you are not exposed. While the manner in which organisations encourage slacktivism may not change, the way we exert our individual agency to address its shortcomings certainly can.