The New Normal: Online activism during the COVID-19 pandemic

Written by Victoria Albitos
Edited by Alissa Melodia Frias

Quarantine: a word we have all become familiar with over the past months. The streets are oddly empty, but the internet is alive day and night. Almost everyone with a phone and an internet connection is online. Whether for dancing on or scrolling through TikTok, getting the latest COVID-19 updates, or attending classes and webinars in Zoom, everyone has a reason to go online these days. Ideas zip back and forth, with everyone watching those who voice out their thoughts. Put all these together, and you find yourself in a haven for online activism.

Since activism on the streets is no longer an option because of COVID-19, online activism is the new way to go. From being just a boredom-killing pastime months ago, going online now plays a more vital role in our lives. Activists have put down their placards and picked up their phones, writing down the words they would have spoken into a megaphone, once upon a time.

The convenience of social media

Where can you find people speaking out? Of course, on social media. Technology these days has made almost everything easier. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are usually frequented by people, especially now that almost everyone is at home. A large audience is already there; all activists have to do to reach them is to send the tweet, post the status, set the trend. With the sheer number of people scrolling through social media daily, it’s an ideal way to spread information and ideas. Infographics about COVID-19 can go viral; so can calls for a better pandemic response. With hashtags like #MedikalHindiMilitar and #MassTestingNowPH, it’s easy to see how the power of social media can be used to call for action and begin positive changes.

Now, we’ve seen how online activism works. But what exactly are the activists and organizations speaking up for?

Speaking up for the people

Now more than ever, there are a lot of important social issues out there to focus on. One hot issue is how governments around the world, including the Philippine government, are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. From President Rodrigo Duterte’s late-night addresses to Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto’s actions, Filipinos from all parts of the country can weigh in on how our government, whether at the national or local level, is responding to this problem.

We Filipinos aren’t the only ones commenting on the way our government is handling things, though. People from all around the world, Eastern and Western, have been sharing how their authorities are reacting to the pandemic. Citizens have been calling out incompetent politicians and praising the competent ones. Posts exposing overzealous law enforcement officers and apathetic netizens have gone viral, too, which instantly earned everyone’s mixed sentiments, mostly ire.

Besides the people working in the government, people have also been paying attention to the frontliners—the doctors, nurses, and janitors still working in hospitals, and many more essential workers still reporting for duty during the pandemic. Netizens have been acknowledging their sacrifices and calling not just for appreciation, but for better pay, enough PPEs, and fairer, non-discriminatory treatment.

Aside from the issues brought up by COVID-19 itself, there are others that have been fought for online since time immemorial—well, since the beginning of the internet.

Feminism, for example, is an age-old movement that is still relevant today. The rise of social media and internet culture has helped feminists gain a wider reach and a more open-minded, progressive audience. Blogs and sites run by feminists continue to inspire women today. Feminist influencers, women and men alike, still call for equal rights and fair treatment for all. Since its first wave calling for the woman’s right to vote, the feminist movement has helped many women all around the world live better lives, though there is still a long way for us to go to achieve true equality.

Environmental activism is also an important movement that has grown popular throughout the years, with activists calling for proper care for the environment and fighting back against global warming and climate change. Now, the most recognizable environmental activist is Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who has been going on school strikes for climate change since 2018, sparking similar strikes all over the world. Thunberg and other environmental activists regularly post updates from their social media accounts, further cementing the role the internet plays in activism. 

LGBT+ movements have also grown online. Now, LGBT+ activists speak up online for equal rights and ending the discrimination and bullying so many LGBT+ people go through every day. Through activism, the movement has managed to reach thousands of LGBT+ people and allies, educating those willing to listen about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE). Little by little, the LGBT+ community is gaining acceptance, and even the right to marry in more progressive countries.

Online activism has helped all of these movements and more in achieving their goals. But like all other forms of expression, it has its pros and cons. 

The pros

With social media as its main medium, it is easy to start speaking up. If you have a phone and an internet connection, you can be an online activist. Where will you go? To social media, where the ease of using popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram has its advantages: thousands of people are online at any given moment. The world is at our fingertips. In our current situation, with most of us stuck inside our homes, going online is the best and only way for activists to carry on, making it their primary focus.

Going online also means getting access to tons of information stored on the internet, and contributing to that store of information as well. News sites are your best friends: we need to understand as much of what’s happening right now as we can, especially if we want to help improve our situation. Besides news sites, critical theorists and their works are also widely available online, with different perspectives of seeing the world. And with self-care becoming increasingly important these days, mental and physical health resources are also just a few clicks away. Whether you’re on Twitter and Facebook to rave about your favorite character in this new series, or looking to spread the word about how to properly wear facemasks, the internet gives you a platform to talk about things important to you and other people.

Online activism is effective because it has a wide reach; anyone with a phone and an internet connection can go online and see your statements. But who has a phone and an internet connection? Those privileged enough to afford them. So who gets to have access to online activism? As previously mentioned, the privileged. 

The cons

There are certain downsides to online activism. The fact that only certain people are privileged enough to access the internet effectively excludes the lower class, who need to use their money on necessities, not luxuries like electronics and an internet connection. If you can’t afford to go online, you are barred from participating in the discussion. The exclusion of the lower class from online activism is counterproductive, as in the first place, it is them that should be benefiting from the changes activism brings about. 

Sometimes, online activism can also be ineffective. Aside from the above reasons, online activism, while easily accessible by those privileged users, is not easily seen by those in power who can actually use their authority to push for positive changes. Unless you go viral or contact the authorities directly, there is no guarantee that someone who can do something about your problem can see it.

Another problem shows itself in the form of trolls that lurk in comment sections and timelines. Nowadays, you’re likely to come across one of these paid users every so often. Spouting whatever propaganda their boss paid them, these trolls are likely to spread fake news, regardless of whatever political party they are aligned to. They are also known for sparking arguments wherever they go, causing the rift between Filipinos of differing political views to grow even wider. 

Trolls also arrive with the fake news that plagues the internet nowadays. In today’s world (aptly nicknamed the “post-truth world”), fact checks are desperately needed to combat misinformation. With the speed at which information flies through the internet, it would be very easy to fake something and watch as tens, then hundreds, then thousands of people get misinformed. Coupled with our short attention spans and tendency to only read the headlines of articles and keep scrolling through our feeds, a troll wouldn’t have a hard time convincing us of whatever they were paid to say. If it’s easy for us to fall for our crushes, it’s just as easy for us to also fall for fake news.

So is online activism effective?

Of course, taking to the streets will always be better than going online. But given the world’s current circumstances, this is the best option to make our voices heard and start a discussion. Our “for now” is rapidly becoming our new normal, and we have to get used to it.

To make the most out of something, you need to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages. This applies to online activism as well. To make sure that online activism makes changes for the better, we need to be as open-minded as possible, activist, or not. We need to learn to be accepting, to educate instead of hating, alienating, and blocking (but if it’s obviously a troll or a fake account, then blocking and reporting would be the correct answer). We need to learn to walk the fine line between educating and roasting; be sensitive and considerate to the person behind the screen.

If we want change that will benefit us, the people, we need to work together to achieve it.

Art by Victoria Albitos. Photos by Rishabh Sharma on Unsplash and Ipajoel on pngtree. Icon by Freepik.

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