Social Activists

The movie Free Willy came out in 1993, yet it took another seven years, millions of dollars, and tremendous campaigning for Willy (aka Keiko) to be reintroduced into the wild. Fast-forward to 2014, and whale captivity continues. Justifications include research, observational education, and the development of captive breeding programs to sustain species. But these arguments have begun to ring hollow. Marine mammal veterinary expert Sue Mayer wrote in her report for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society that “the increased sophistication of studies on free-living animals and the greater relevance of data from those studies further throw the justification for research on captive cetaceans into doubt.”

If you haven’t read that report, perhaps you’ve heard of Blackfish or The Cove, two recent documentaries discussing cetacean captivity. Both have generated a tidal wave of coverage on the treatment and training of cetaceans for our entertainment and profit. Blackfish tells the story of the orca Tilikum, currently performing at SeaWorld, who has been involved in several deaths over the years. The Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove focuses on the hunt, capture, sale, and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

Both documentaries embody a call to action, a call taken up on social media platforms. But despite viewer response, the Taiji dolphin hunt took place again in 2013, and SeaWorld brought in record revenues. This raises the question: just how far apart are the “dominos” of media, social media, awareness, and action? If you knock one down, how likely are the others to topple? In other words, how likely is awareness of an issue likely to lead to activism?

Twitter took to their blog to cover #Blackfish during CNN’s broadcast of the documentary in October 2013. An interactive graphic illustrated the web of connections created by users through @mentions and direct tweets, an outpouring of response made possible by social media platforms but effectively harnessed by CNN. By televising the documentary and laying the groundwork for public response, CNN tapped into people’s yearning for a shared experience. Blackfish went from a film watched intermittently in theaters or individually on Netflix to an experience shared simultaneously by millions worldwide.

Social media platforms also give users the ability to interact with involved celebrities, and vice versa. Ariana Grande rallied her fan base, while fans of Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies persuaded those music artists to cancel engagements at SeaWorld. Even companies are equal opportunity users on social media platforms, using corporate accounts to respond and receive feedback in turn. SeaWorld initially responded to Blackfish through an email sent to film critics. Since the network debut of the documentary, SeaWorld has only indirectly responded to the media feeding frenzy, with an open letter addressed to animal advocates. Government has also gotten in on the game, with Ambassador Kennedy expressing U.S. displeasure about the Taiji hunt on Twitter.

Only in the past few years have social media platforms gained an established user base and proven their marketing effectiveness. Thus, it becomes difficult to isolate the x-factor when measuring the impact of recent environmental documentaries, as well as the effectiveness of their marketing strategies. Released in 2009, The Cove received widespread praise and accolades, including an Academy Award. But while it received attention on social media platforms, the online reaction was not as orchestrated and effective a response as Blackfish achieved through its distributor CNN Films.

Traveling further back in time, 2006 saw the release of An Inconvenient Truth: the environmental documentary that brought global warming to the forefront of public awareness. Without as familiar a spokesperson as former Vice President Al Gore, would An Inconvenient Truth still have achieved national recognition? And without the now-established presence of social media platforms, would Blackfish have ridden a similar swell of public support?

This public support is not the only byproduct of social media attention however. Since its initial broadcast, Blackfish has also generated backlash on social media sites. Kyle Kittleson — a former Sea World whale trainer — encourages “armchair activists” to do their homework. This response raises the question: without individual follow-through, do social media users risk supporting what Kyle calls a “blind statement?” Are we inviting the kind of uninformed argument that seems to pervade politics and make up message boards these days?

We should also ask if awareness of an issue — however fledgling or informed — necessarily translates into action. Are social media platforms simply soundboards, without any real potential to galvanize action? Public response to recent documentaries with an environmental focus has been uneven, but whether such scattershot response is due to sensationalism, social media, spokespeople, or distribution channels is unclear, particularly as social media is still coming into its own.

Have social media platforms accelerated the timeline for effecting change? A decline in SeaWorld direct ticket sales and stock purchases would suggest that Blackfish reached its intended audience. However, the general lack of progress on global warming seven years after the release of An Inconvenient Truth — along with the continuing insistence in some quarters that global warming is a myth — makes me wonder if things would have been different had An Inconvenient Truth been released today, with the full power of social media platforms at its disposal.

According to The Cove, activists are the real agents of change. Dolphin advocate Richard O’Barry states, “If you aren’t an activist, you’re an inactivist.” Louie Psihoyos — director of The Cove — reinforces that point by saying, “There has to be a new generation that takes over from here.” Are today’s social media users tomorrow’s activists? And when does that conversion happen? What does it take to debunk the “armchair activist” designationand start the domino chain leading to policy change?

Image Credit: Minette Layne via Wikimedia Commons

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