This article is more than 1 year old

Student activism has been transformed by technology

This article is more than 1 year old

Ashley Storer-Smith is Student Voice Manager at the University of Nottingham SU

On the 5th March 2012, the charity Invisible Children posted a video to YouTube – KONY 2012.

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street may have been the first to harness social media groups to recruit people to camp next to the bull – but KONY 2012 was the start of a digital revolution utilising Web 2.0, the social web.

What most people remember is the vilification of people sharing this video as “slacktivism” (or the unintentional viral video of the unfortunate mental breakdown of Jason Russel, the face of this campaign).

But it changed how students and other activists used the web to create change. Ten years on, what has this evolved to – and what can we learn?

Change has changed

If you want to dive into the untold history of events around KONY 2012, this is not the article for you – but there are many YouTube retrospectives and an interview with Jason Russell from the BBC. The short version of the story is that KONY 2012 was a video campaign released by Invisible Children to make Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, famous so he would answer for his crimes.

We saw lots of posting from all walks of life, including students – but physical turnout to the subsequent “Cover the Night” events were underwhelming. It popularised the term Slactivist – the idea that people (particularly young people) would think that sharing videos and posts online would create change but would in fact be superficial and ineffective. Students across the world latched onto this campaign and I remember seeing KONY 2012 posters across the boards in my university. But does online activism really do nothing?

Ignoring the pandemic, we have seen social media usage increase and change since 2012. Where in the early part of the 2010’s, student activists and SU Officers used facebook groups to recruit physical campaigners for their occupations and marches against tuition fees, the later part of the decade utilised social media as a public weapon to create change rather than just recruits.

KONY 2012 didn’t just show us the horrors of Joseph Kony like other charity videos – it focused on personal stories and the virality of shock and anger. Jason Russell discusses their personal experience of being in Uganda and ends the video with himself and his son, a plea for the next generation to not live in a world with people like Joseph Kony. This may seem inconsequential but if we look at the viral campaigns that students (as well as the general population) use post-KONY 2012, we see this pattern.

In the US, Franklin and Marshall College had the Black Yak Campaign – a representation of the personal racism students experienced on the Yik Yak App. Emma Sulkowiczs in 2014, commonly known as Mattress Girl, carried the mattress that they were raped on across campus as a symbol of the emotional weight they were carrying due to the inaction of Columbia University. These campaigns utilised the personal stories of students to further the aims of their campaign. We often see this in the UK when it comes to campaigns around sexual harrassment on campus. It Happens Here at Warwick University was created due to the sharing of personal stories around the Rape Chat Scandal.

The ability to share your story from the phone in your pocket is powerful in good and bad ways. Putting your story out there can be painful. The internet gives anyone the ability to engage and comment but the struggle to create change can be compounded by hatred and harassment through a screen. Even just the ability to see video evidence of injustice can be triggering to people who experience that injustice on a daily basis. How do we protect and support our student campaigners when putting out their story is the main way to create change?

Supporting campaigns and campaigners

Staff that support students should be aware and active in supporting campaigners in a different way in the 2020s. Campaigning on injustice is personal, and seen as essential for survival. Multiple academic papers on this issue have discussed the concept, and both racial battle fatigue and activist burnout are amplified by the technological change underpinning student activism.

A partial solution to this issue comes from something central to KONY 2012 – the way in which the internet connects people with similar interests. Even though Web 1.0 did include some chatrooms for like minded people to connect, the social internet of Web 2.0 accelerated this. Rhodes Must Fall, a big campaign in the University of Oxford, started at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The ability to connect student activists from across the world helps them find support from similarly affected students as well as help activists learn from each other. We see this again from the connection between #iamtooharvard and #iamtoooxford as well as #MeToo campaigns around PGR students across borders.

So where does this put SUs? If the internet can connect like-mined people and create direct change, why do student activists need the platform of SU to create change? There is still a space for SUs, but that space needs to adapt drastically. Student campaigners today will likely reject the boundaries and processes we tend to put up around campaigning societies, networks, and formal groups. We need to adapt our approaches.

The University of Nottingham SU is currently in this phase of changing and adapting to campaigners. Even though our democracy review is underway, the way we interact with campaigns is changing. We are actively reaching out to campaigners through social media to chat about what we can do for them, not how they should conform to our processes. We remove barriers to funding so that any student campaign can get money and resources, not just the ones that are formally registered.

We have also have a range of resources that student campaigners want – like megaphones, PA systems, hi-vis vests, and trolleys to carry materials. These are open to any student to just pick up and use with a student card as collateral.

How has KONY 2012 and technology changed how students campaign? Success is based on the volume of personal stories put out there to be commented and trolled on; how you collaborate with like minded people from across the globe; and how students find personal support to push through the pain of fighting for their rights.

If we are going to adapt as SUs to continue to be a part of the student campaigning story, we need to actively reach out to those putting those stories out there. We need to remove barriers to get the support, finances, resources and expertise of the SU, as what they need to create change is available in the glass and metal slab in their pocket.

As Jason Russell foretold in KONY 2012:

The world that we live in has new rules… the technology that has brought our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends”

2 responses to “Student activism has been transformed by technology

  1. “Student campaigners today will likely reject the boundaries and processes we tend to put up around campaigning societies, networks, and formal groups.”

    Maybe it depends on the University, but I’ve tended to find students, especially those who’ve not done campaigning before, appreciate being given the structure and process to enable them to try and do things.

    “We remove barriers to funding so that any student campaign can get money and resources, not just the ones that are formally registered.”

    Could there be a bit more detail about this? Is there more info online about how it works?

  2. Well the removal of structures is more looking at how many people need to be members for them to exist. Why should a small group of students campaigning around a niche issue have to have 50 members and at least 5 committee roles dictated by the SU. Also the amount of paperwork to get money, be featured on SU marketing, and create an event is also off putting if they can run events and promote them on campus without having to do the paperwork if they are outside of the SU.

    So any student can apply for campaigns funding. We have a simple form that asks about what the aims of the activity that is being funded and what they want to spend the money on. If a non-registered group is awarded the funds, we make the purchases directly or process the reimbursements from the Student Voice budget lines as they don’t have a bank account with us. We are rebooting our webpages on this for next academic year so this should be up in the near future.

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