From awareness to change

For a South Korean protest movement, going viral is both a blessing and a curse.

Brian Reinken

College students across South Korea have started a social movement by publicly posting lists of grievances regarding the country’s government and social inequality.

This poster movement began in December when a Korea University student posted a laundry list of problems on a campus bulletin board. Now the movement has spread across the country via social media. Although activists may not realize it, this viral development presents its own problems.

The speed with which the South Korean movement has spread is a testament to the Internet’s communicative power. Modern activists have been quick to seize new technology to spread their messages. Social media played an integral role in both the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign.

However, simply going viral does not mean a campaign will be successful. In reality, viral activism is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, social media encourages mass participation and awareness. On the other hand, such mass participation can transform a legitimate campaign into a viral fad that burns hot before quickly fading.

The Kony 2012 campaign may present viral activism’s quintessential pitfall. San Diego-based nonprofit Invisible Children raised awareness about the Lord’s Resistance Army’s exploitation of child soldiers in Africa, but its Kony 2012 movement was fundamentally flawed because it failed to present a meaningful second step. Awareness is one thing; change is quite another.

Kony 2012 allowed millions of Americans feel like they were making a difference even if they forgot about the campaign immediately thereafter. It was a parody of political participation, and it was an “activist” campaign in name only. Kony 2012 disseminated a highly appealing message: Just sign your name on the dotted line, and you’ve done all it takes to make a difference.

Except that you haven’t.

If these South Korean activists are going to be successful, they’ll need to find a way to surpass social media “slacktivism.” They will need to pressure the nation’s courts, banks and politicians to react. This will take years’ worth of persistence and organization.

As if this weren’t difficult enough, Korea’s student activists must do all of this while planning the rest of their lives. It’s important to remember that youth activism, like a viral campaign, has distinctive benefits and downsides.

Students’ economic insolvency and lack of political influence may complicate the perseverance of an activist campaign.

However, South Korea’s poster movement has unique advantages. The protest demands both digital and analog participation through creating posters, hanging them in public places and sharing them online. By altering public spaces, the movement inspires action beyond slacktivism, which could be its saving grace.

An effective campaign demands far more energy than it takes to click a button or to watch a viral video. But that’s OK, because in the end, the change that organized campaigns enact is far more permanent.