Lies disguised as online activism

Were you horrified by the furore about that child bride in Norway last week? Well, you should have been, but not because it was true.

Last week, my Facebook timeline filled up with images of a young, blonde girl, under the headline that she was to become Norway’s first official child bride.

“This is not what it seems,” I thought to myself. “This is yet another emotionally manipulative clickbait campaign designed to get me outraged about something that isn’t true, to force me to examine some inner prejudice and then channel my outrage where it really belongs.”

Guess what? I was right.

Care about this!
The (extremely well-intentioned) campaign, which featured a nice, white, blonde, curly Norwegian teenager’s fake blog about her impending nuptial, was designed to — after the big reveal — highlight the fact that 39 000 children around the world really are forced into marriage every day.

Unfortunately, instead of transferring my shock that such a lovely European child could meet such a terrible fate into sympathy for all the less blonde children in the world who actually do, the whole thing just made me cross. I’m sick of online attempts to manipulate my emotions through trusted news sources and social media. They just leave me feeling angry and abused.

Also, as a friend pointed out, there’s something inherently wrong in the assumption that we’ll only see the personhood of girl children who are forced into marriage if we first tap into our sympathy for a white child facing a similar plight. Truthful poster campaigns showing girls who genuinely face this travesty would, as far as I’m concerned, be more honest and for me, more effective.

Abusing a trusting audience
Earlier this year, I was asked by an agency to participate in a campaign for People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa), in which married women around South Africa would change their Facebook status to “single” without revealing why for 24 hours. The point was that this would highlight the ease with which those of us in healthy relationships can walk away, while many women stuck in abusive relationships feel that they have no way out.

I declined to participate because I believe that people shouldn’t misuse the online space to lie to their friends for the same reason that news outlets shouldn’t publish misleading stories online: it’s dishonest.

You’re lying to a trusting audience. In the case of announcing the end of my marriage to all my friends around the world, I felt that it would cause them emotional pain. It would result in a lot of those “What happened? Are you OK, hun?” kind of posts, which would paint my friends as fools after the big reveal. Why would I do that to people I care about?

(As an aside, getting divorced from my not-abusive husband would be far more complicated than changing my Facebook status to single.)

Just so that we’re entirely clear here, I absolutely do support the brilliant work being done by Powa. It’s a very important cause, and so, in the interests of raising awareness through honesty, here’s a link to the “More Than a Click” campaign.

What works and why
However, back to my original point: the way that we package and manipulate information on the internet and on social media means that people are moving from “you can’t believe everything you read online” to “you can’t believe ANYTHING you read online”. Which is a bit of a pity, really, if you consider that for many people, the internet is their primary or even only news source.

I’m a generous sharer but extremely cynical consumer of information. I knew that the Norwegian child bride was a campaign from the start, but thousands didn’t. They wasted their outrage on garnering Twitter support for their plans to stop her wedding, knickers were knotted and hands were wrung. And while the campaign did a lot to raise awareness for the plight of child brides around the world, it also left a bitter taste in the mouths of those who cared.

On the other hand, the ice bucket challenge got the whole world participating to raise awareness for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) without lying to anyone. I certainly know more about this crippling and fatal disease than I did nine months ago. It was done by introducing an element of fun into a very serious message, but never by misleading the people involved. That’s the kind of campaign that people should be looking up to, and trying to recreate, rather than those that resort to dishonesty and manipulation.

Image – Screengrab of