Online activism often ineffective, pointless

Illustration by Aaron Logan

Internet activism has had a long and torturous history. It began with chain emails and has adapted to popular new mediums. Now we have social media to circulate causes and ideas across the Internet. The problem is that you can’t prove they have any impact. This is why Internet activism is often labeled “slacktivism.”

The most useless form this activism takes is online petitions. You don’t have to look far to see how silly and useless these petitions can get, just look at and Scrolling through the list of categories on ThePetitionSite shows top petitions of “we want something” in every category. One such petition caught my attention – it was a petition to cure cancer.

There needs to be a petition to cure cancer? No, of course there doesn’t. That the users of the website think they need to raise awareness of this disease is astounding. There are over 300 petitions seeking more support for actions against cancer. Saying that cancer is bad is not raising awareness when people already know cancer is bad. It is also not helping the cause when the action in this kind of activism ends with a mouse click.

Looking at the government’s petition website is not encouraging either. In this case, our government has set up a process by which you can submit and sign petitions. You need to get 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order for the White House staff to look at a petition.

Of the 98 petitions answered by the government so far, most are responses to petitions asking the president to grant pardons or commit double jeopardy. Others are plainly not serious. For example, thousands of people signed a petition saying that building a Death Star, the killer space station from Star Wars, would create jobs.

The government’s response was that it would cost more than 850 quintillion dollars and that they do not support blowing up planets. What a colossal waste of time. Honorable mentions go to petitions asking the government to declassify its UFO knowledge and a last gasp for the Kony 2012 initiative.

Remember Kony 2012? It was a social media campaign put forth by a group called Invisible Children with the goal to make Joseph Kony famous enough to force authorities to put more urgency into tracking him down. Kony is the notorious cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. As Dinaw Mengestu wrote in his March 12, 2012, article on Warscapes, the vast difficulties in tracking Kony cannot be overcome by wishful thinking.

“The capture of a single man whose forces are spread out in mobile camps across a vast, undeveloped region that covers thousands of square miles… isn’t something that can be easily clicked away,” Mengestu’s article said.

As Mengestu points out, the U.S., UN and other organizations have been helping the governments of Uganda and South Sudan to try and locate Kony for the past decade. Awareness is not going to solve the problem faster now that the U.S. at large knows of it.

Therein lies the main problem with these campaigns: they are seeking to raise awareness of issues instead of implement solutions. Awareness helps when it is something that people can control. However, when the issue is something like the whereabouts of a fugitive on the other side of the world, awareness is not going to solve everything. and its parent company Care2 have a list of successful causes they have contributed to through advocating specific actions and donating funds for those that require them. Examples include how they have changed laws, protected consumers from faulty products, rescued animals and saved a zoo. Even the government website lists how thoughtful appeals have influenced policy change over the course of the website’s operation.

Online activism has been around for a long time but hasn’t utilized its potential except in a few rare instances. Current activists would do well to learn from these examples unless they want to continue asking questions about problems already solved or telling people something they already know.

Patrick White is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to