COVID-19 | New modalities of online activism: using WhatsApp to mobilize for change by Lize Swartz

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As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we are slowly settling in to a ‘new normal’. For many of us, having lived our lives online the last few weeks has made us question the necessity of meeting in person to get things done. Can we also organize online to enact change? While internet access is not yet universal, a recent study shows that WhatsApp can be an important tool for mobilizing. Lize Swartz discusses how new forms of online activism can emerge on WhatsApp and whether it promotes inclusivity.

A recent post by Duncan Green on the drawbacks of online activism left me deep in thought. Green mentioned that not all people have access to a stable and reliable internet connection, leading to the exclusion of some groups and the domination of other groups in online campaigning. He also discussed how issues can be hyped on social media, how attention to the issues are based on the life span of content on different social media channels, and how ‘woke’ online activists need to be. Successful online activism therefore seems to involve the ability to connect to the internet and use it as a tool, for example by building an online presence and communications strategy.

Online activism is often equated to clicktivism and online campaigning for funds or signatures, but can be something else entirely. Being an online activist does not only mean subscribing to campaign emails and following campaigns online, donating money online to your favourite cause, or hashtagging or hyping issues you care about on social media. These are all tired forms of online activism that are seen as the lowest-hanging fruit. And being online does not mean working on a computer, being a ‘digital native’, or keeping up to date with and shaping how debates are developing by being online all the time.

Research I conducted about responses to the collapse of urban water supply systems in South Africa shows the tremendous potential of WhatsApp as a platform for organization and social learning. Mobile phones are the primary way of accessing the internet in South Africa, where I’m from and where I’ve been conducting research on social mobilization. Online activism through channels such as WhatsApp is part of people’s daily lives because the mobile phone has become the primary means of communication for many—a companion that follows us everywhere and helps us make sense of our lives.

Mobile phone users can become activists whenever they share pictures or information on WhatsApp with the hope of changing someone’s perspective or encouraging action. But WhatsApp can also be used to mobilize in different ways. It can either be used to organize physical protests or to organize initiatives or stage protests that take place entirely online.

I studied responses of water users in three South African towns to the interruption of municipal water supplies following the depletion of the towns’ water sources. Through WhatsApp, water users in these towns were able to inform each other about the collapse, including the date on which the municipal water supply would be shut off, where they could access water once this happened, and who needed help. Once the water ran out, people were able to organize at a national level through WhatsApp to collect and transport bottled and bulk water to towns in need (these are called ‘water drives’ in South Africa).

In the process, water users produced knowledge not only on how to adapt, but also about what drove the collapses that ultimately informed certain adaptation strategies. This includes the role they played in bringing about the collapse through how they interact with water. This may not be considered conventional online activism, but it clearly shows how WhatsApp can be used to mobilize for change, in this case by informing choices about preferred adaptation strategies and ways to access water. It also informed strategies to hold actors perceived responsible for the collapse accountable, for example by ‘going off the water grid’ (using private water instead of state-supplied water).

Several things about organizing through WhatsApp could be observed. The most important are:

You don’t need to be a ‘digital native’ or tech savvy to organize online. Most of the water users on the WhatsApp groups were middle-aged or retired persons who use WhatsApp to stay connected and share information. Many of the water users I interviewed for my research who are active on these groups do not own or regularly use a computer, neither do all of them have WiFi. Most of them surf the internet on their mobile phones using mobile data. They are more likely than hyperconnected ‘digital natives’ to call each other. And they regularly talk to each other and share information on WhatsApp. Something as rudimentary as WhatsApp can lead to sophisticated activist strategies that are not based on an extensive online presence or knowledge of how to promote your organization or hashtag the hell out of an issue to get your point across.

Not everyone needs to be on WhatsApp to be involved in campaigns or initiatives. Many participants on WhatsApp groups represented households. They would share information with family and friends in their personal capacity through personal connections on WhatsApp. This means that online participants linked to their networks to mobilize or share information.

You don’t need to be ‘woke’ about current issues. The participants in WhatsApp groups were part of the group based on a shared concern—a lack of water. Other WhatsApp groups exist in these communities for other issues, including an unstable energy supply (sharing information on ‘load shedding’) or neighbourhood security (organizing neighbourhood watch schedules). One thing I’ve noticed about these communities (of largely middle-class white people) is how there seems to be a WhatsApp group for everything: to organize a baby shower, a birthday gift, a water collection drive, or a protest. Thus, a central concern and an assertive, practical approach to addressing it, rather than the desire to hype an issue on social media, drives engagement and collaboration.

You don’t need to be part of an organization. WhatsApp users were organized loosely around a central concern they collectively identified, not one imposed ‘from above’ by NGOs or other ‘civil society organizations’. The WhatsApp groups emerged organically, with a central administrator and leader, but without any clear hierarchies or agenda. The freedom to set and pursue an agenda was enabled through this, facilitating social learning and deeper impacts.

Some other things should be kept in mind when organizing through WhatsApp:

A concrete goal is important. Do you want the WhatsApp group to be used to share information, to coordinate collective efforts, or to learn?

Think about who you want the message to reach. To make online activism successful, the measures need to reach the right people and have the right clout to place pressure for change. Visual imagery such as videos and photos may prove particularly effective in showing decision-makers, the media or the general public that real persons are concerned about and affected by an issue. It’s even better if social media and physical mobilization are combined.

Opportunism isn’t a problem, it’s strategic. If COVID-19 is seen as a moment of reality, is it so bad if its momentum is used to drive wider or deeper change not directly related to the pandemic? The restriction of movement for example has encouraged environmental activists to emphasize the link between human activity and climate change. Over the last three months I’ve heard how Venice’s water is crystal clear for the first time in years, of wild animals roaming the streets now that humans are not, and how visibility has increased due to the sudden decrease in air pollution. Linking your cause to wider developments can give it momentum to be propelled forward.

A number of concerns regarding the use of WhatsApp remain that require careful consideration. These include the way in which it and other social media platforms can exclude, privacy concerns, and the propensity of using it to circulate fake news. These concerns will be addressed in a future blog.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

Lize Swartz

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.



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