December 13, 2017 by Rena Young
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During the past decade, social media has emerged as a primary tool for activists hoping to drive change on a wide variety of topics….writes Rena Young.

The 2010 international Human Rights Day event inside the United Nations Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. Credit: U.N. Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

Although savvy social media use can help raise awareness for a given issue, more often than not, even viral messages are largely empty gestures.

As opposed to generating real change, social media is often merely a tool for “slacktivism”—internet actions that require little involvement beyond a click of the mouse or writing an ephemeral but clever tweet. This creates a sense of doing something positive and being part of a mass movement, but in practice, very little is accomplished beyond feel-good moments for the participants.

Dec. 10 marked the annual international Human Rights Day, an opportunity to take stock of the state of human rights and to consider the role of “slacktivism” in campaigns to promote these universal values. After all, you will likely be bombarded on Facebook and Twitter to “like,” “share” and “retweet” human rights-related hashtags.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, with dozens upon dozens of well-financed human rights NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and U.N. agencies, is rife with illustrative examples.

For more than a year, Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the most well-funded and powerful NGOs, has conducted an obsessive campaign against Israel. What is this fundamental problem that lies at the root of the conflict and has the possibility to bring human rights, peace and coexistence to the region? Whether Israel should be kicked out of the international soccer federation, FIFA, because a handful of minor league soccer teams are based over the 1949 armistice line.

Although HRW lobbied FIFA directly, the real action for the NGO was on social media. The NGO’s social media pages and the accounts of its top employees overflowed with posts on the topic. Ultimately, these energies were a total waste, as FIFA refused to suspend Israel.

Another instance is a hashtag, #NoWayToTreatAChild, promoted by Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P), a Palestinian NGO with reported ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group. DCI-P states that its mission is “promoting and protecting the rights of Palestinian children.” But as part of our extensive research into this NGO’s allegations,” NGO Monitor discovered that DCI-P refused to take part in initiatives that would directly benefit Palestinian children.

Instead, DCI-P created a hashtag and gained shares and retweets. It is doubtful that its funders— such as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and UNICEF—thought they were investing in a catchy slogan that fuels the conflict and fails to change anything for children on the ground.

DCI-P is not alone in chasing hashtag popularity. The Food Security Cluster (FSC), a joint venture of the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization, is a mechanism for ensuring food security for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In 2017 alone, FSC received more than $150 million from governments to accomplish this task. Yet in a meeting held in Gaza earlier this year, FSC presented its plan to organize an international  campaign “to mark 50 years of Israeli occupation and 10 years of blockade on the Gaza Strip” by using the hashtags #thisisoccupation and #endtheoccupation. FSC did not indicate how these hashtags will put food on Palestinian tables, prevent Hamas from stealing humanitarian aid or encourage cooperation with Israel on desalination.

What unifies all these examples is the highly questionable benefit to actual Palestinians. In the Israeli context, though, this might be the point. For many NGOs, besmirching Israel’s name is the goal, not improving the universal human rights for Palestinians and Israelis. The disconnect between real human rights work that seeks to protect all people, and hollow social media advocacy campaigns, is stark.

Regardless of the NGOs’ intentions, it is significantly easier to promote hashtag and other social media campaigns. Likes, shares and retweets are cheap. Yet there is little evidence that such slacktivism generates lasting change.

The governmental and private funders must therefore ask themselves: Is this what we paid for? Has all our money been wasted on ineffective and counterproductive social media campaigns?

Rena Young is communications associate at NGO Monitor. 

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