The Limits of Facebook Activism

The other day it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard anything about the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa. They were so popular/important a few months ago, so I thought I had missed some update in their story. Sadly, it turns out I hadn’t. The government of Nigeria which had their citizens kidnapped has apparently lost ground to its insurgency and that’s pretty much it.

From a report on Yahoo, via the UK,  ( :   “Although Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan vowed he would fight the insurgents and find the girls, he has been accused several times of not doing enough to combat terrorism in the country. Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed his frustration at the inadequate negotiations between the government and the terrorists. His comment came as Boko Haram asked for the release of some prisoners in exchange for the girls, but President Goodluck Jonathan rejected the exchange deal. Obasanjo has also said “some of the girls will never return. Only those that would later get pregnant and the sect members would find it difficult to cater for the babies in the forest might be released.” Meanwhile, reports have emerged that the girls were being smuggled to  were used as suicide bombers.”

Apparently in the UK, they are still news.  My friend Eric noted that my denomination is still praying for them, so they haven’t forgotten, either. But the rest of us? What happened?

What struck me as odd about the whole thing was that that this was the first time social media made a “star” out of a cause.  Since then, it’s been the Ice Bucket Challenge that suddenly caught on and “went viral”. Suddenly, it seemed like “It was the best of social media. It was the worst of social media”. I am sure that the people from the ALS Society are in a tizzy because all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they raked in an unprecedented amount of money. That kind of thing requires staff to sort it out, bookkeepers to record it, staff to say “thank you” — many of whom will have to be laid off after the dust settles, even while they are grateful for the influx of donations.  In the long run, I am sure they will hire some permanently, and research will be funded and it’ll all be ok, but what does it mean that your organization is a fad, like pet rocks, or Flock of Seagulls haircuts?

When a video “goes viral”, it becomes popular, is noted as such by the news media, then goes away for the most part… unless a person can capitalize on their fame somehow and stay in the public eye for some time, where they can make money out of it. Thus, “dad who yelled at his kid” or “baby who talks googly” become the hit for a day or a week. Yes, Andy Warhol famously said, “Everyone will have fifteen minutes of fame” and we seem to have gotten there in these days of the internet, but when people’s very lives become involved, that’s not the point. Fame is fleeting. People’s conditions seldom are.  It is a part of our society since the advent of mass media that some things take on a life of their own, some things become apparently POPULAR  for awhile, then fade away and are fondly remembered as “that thing we did back then”. These fads — by their very nature — make no sense. Why did Davy Crocket hats catch on and not Mr. Ed ears or Gilligan’s hat? No one knows, but we accept that it is part of life that we call frivolity. We know it’s silly, but we can’t help ourselves liking it.

But here’s the problem: “Popular” isn’t the same thing as “Important”. Facebook is good at “popular”, Facebook is good at “important”, maybe, if you’re talking about ideas.  What it’s not good at is action.  We forget that it’s the virtual world and nothing will happen in The Real World just because people think it’s popular — or even important if that’s all it is. Action calls for real people to do legwork in the real world. Facebook is a good start to a conversation, but it can never be the end of a conversation, because conversing about it only goes so far. It is when you and I are impacted enough by our memes and witticisms and causes that we actually do something with them, that things get done in the world. In that case, the news of our kids’ playing football and having giant trading cars made of them is a perfect medium (Hi, Julie and Amy!). In that case, even if the picture fades from the rest of our memories, the people who are the “cause” celebrated by the news still receive the support of the people most important — their parents will maintain an ongoing relationship of support with them, long after the picture has faded.

But for 100 innocent girls, that doesn’t work.  In Chile, years ago, the Mothers of the Disappeared kept their children’s memories alive, by parading through the streets with pictures of their missing children. I would hope that the parents of the children in Nigeria are doing such a thing and I suspect they are.  I would hope that kidnapping and the sex trade would stop happening at some point. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to require long-term prevention and solutions. It’s going to take people changing their minds about the way things are and should be, and it’s going to take people willing to put themselves in the middle of the issue. and risk their health, livelihoods, and lives to get it done. Facebook activism is like checkbook missions — it’s a good start, and it’s good, but it allows us to stay a safe distance from what is going on in a certain situation.

I love Facebook, and some of my friends have said that I “live on Facebook”. I update my status daily, as though it’s important to the world — and it is, to some people.  But this Fall, as the weather gets cold, I hope to not avoid the homeless person  near the bus stop or over the sewer grate, my day with a frowny face won’t compare to theirs.  Outside of the virtual world, The Real World  has got lots of problems. Whether they are popular or not, they need solutions, and they need us. May we not pass them by.







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