When it comes to social issues and politics, the activists in this issue agree: the internet has helped us in making the world a better place. It's our generation's ears and eyes, giving us the knowledge and tools to implement change. Change happens when we're told stories that "provoke and inspire us", according to Tamsin Omond, a young and experienced environmental activist and Green Party candidate. "The fact of these stories being told, from the other side of the planet, direct to our phones, is the best story of all." In other words, we're most attuned to what's going on in the world today because we can reach more of it. 40 percent of the world are connected to the internet and more than one in four people have smart phones.
"The internet is often painted as a black hole of activism," says Rowan Davis, a 19-year-old transgender activist. But she is quick to defend it: "In my experience, the internet has been transformative in the way I understand the world. It gives us the tools to think about why there is oppression in the first place." We can no longer be in denial about social inequality or political unrest because in an information age it's thrust in front of our faces.
When the Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine kicked off in November 2013, Facebook and Twitter became not only the arena in which events played out for the rest of the world to see, but a locus for Ukrainian protesters to share information, keep abreast of developments and exchange medical or legal advice. In the first eight days of its creation, the Euromaidan Facebook page accumulated around 80,000 likes. Similarly, over the course of Turkey's Gezi Park protests that same year, Turkish citizens reacted to the traditional media's poor coverage of events by turning to social media and posting from the ground. In this sense, the hashtag is increasingly replacing old guard media as a democratic way to raise visibility and call people to action.
For Generations Y and Z, the internet can help to form a collective conscious, and there exists dedicated sites and campaigns that aim to capitalise on the same momentum. Charity fundraising platforms like Change.org and Justgive.org make it easy for us to donate, sign petitions and lobby for change, and demonstrate our willingness to give online. In 2014, #nomakeupselfie raised over £8 million for cancer awareness and #icebucketchallenge has raised over $100 million for the ALS Association. Problem is, a lot of these fundraising sites take a cut, and a bunch of people who took part in these viral campaigns failed to actually donate.
These forms of online awareness-raising are often termed "clicktivism", and have come under fierce criticism for their marketing tactics, minimum effort requirement and emphasis on qualitative results. But they also have their advantages. "Real life activism is hugely important," says No More Page 3's Lisa Clarke, "but it can be difficult for supporters to access for numerous reasons - geography, time, disabilities, even lack of confidence." For No More Page 3's campaign, online activism was an integral way to lobby for change: "In the time it would take you to have a nap you could send a tweet to an advertiser and be part of an action that prompts an immediate change of policy," she says.
Bryony Beynon is the co-director of Hollaback, an organisation that aims to break the silence and stigma around street harassment and put an end to the idea that catcalling is something that has to be "put up with". While she acknowledges that "sharing stories is what social media is all about", she also reckons that "there's really no substitute for getting out into the streets and meeting other activists doing good work". Her advice to young activists is to get out there, share tactics and stage actions. "Make sure you have the tough conversations in the real world, not just on Twitter."
Another criticism of web-based activism is that it's insular. In a 2010 article for the New Yorker, titled Small Change, author Malcolm Gladwell criticised social media activism, writing that, "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties." However, the No More Page 3 activists say that social media has helped them form invaluable ties, particularly when enlisting the ongoing support of journalists and MPs. In our online lives we're exposed to those we might not be able to reach in person - people of power, people from the other side of the world, people with different political imperatives. Those relationships made online can inform our lives offline.
There's a misconception that staring into screens disconnects us, but we learn and take away. Rowan Davis was at her computer when she saw the suicide note of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, who killed herself because her family didn't support her transition. Joining the global rally to organise vigils for Leelah, Rowan set up an event page on Facebook. The following weekend, over 100 people turned up in Trafalgar Square for Leelah's vigil and to share their anger "at the psychiatric industry, at transmisogyny and at the patriarchy".
"The fights for liberation we have in one context can't be extricated from those we have in another. Without the internet we would not know about Leelah," says Rowan. "Her parents would have buried her under her death-name, she would have been misgendered in the local press and her story would have been lost like so many others. Through community-building websites like Tumblr and Twitter she was given a platform from which she could be heard, the internet is really important for that - for taking marginalised groups and giving them power. Without the internet we also would not have heard about the seven trans women of colour murdered in the US since the start of the year, or about #blacklivesmatter, or about Occupy Wall Street."
The activists I speak to all agree that we can't allow the internet to offer us a get out clause, but instead we need to use it to support our intentions for change. "The internet is a tool," Tamsin Omond agrees, "a way to communicate, to build awareness and to turn that awareness tactically into action." We've seen it do this time and time again. When the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson ignited worldwide protests in August 2014, the secret political organisation London Black Revs arranged a 800-strong "die-in" protest at Westfield shopping centre via Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth. "We have a heavy social media presence, which we use to back up our direct action, protests and community work," they tell me. "We have nuanced views that online activism must be used as an aide to actual practical activity, the two aren't counterposed."
Online, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the good. London punk band Skinny Girl Diet are keen to change this. "The internet gets used in the wrong way," says Delilah Holliday, the guitarist and vocalist. "Often the people who get the most attention use it for vacuous reasons rather than saying 'we need to change shit'. Shopping haul videos get more views than political rants. Or that white and gold dress. There are people missing in the world and the colour of a dress makes headlines!" Bandmate Ursula Holliday agrees. She says that your medium shouldn't matter if you're saying something worthy: "Go to protests, form a band with political lyrics, make art - be active with your opinions and try to express them in any format you can." Now in their late teens, the girls attend student protests in London and have played fundraisers for various causes, from supporting Pussy Riot to social housing.
From climate change, to politics, to social inequality, as the future of our planet, Gen Z have no shortage of issues to contend with - issues that our social media timelines and the ever-evolving news media make us all too aware of. At times, it can seem a depressing lot, but activism is as much about optimism as it is about doing something. "Do whatever it is that makes you feel alive," says Tamsin. "Don't fake it. When you find out what it is - that thing that really matters to you - tell people about it. Invite them to care too. Don't be scared. Just be truthful."
Text Amelia Abraham