Waves of Fadtivism

Like trends in music, the types of causes teens fight for are simply forms of self-expression, whether it be going green or pushing for LGBTQ rights.
“As teenagers, a big part of what you are doing is developing and establishing your identity to yourself, as well as how you present yourself to other people,” psychologist Daniel Singley, Ph.D said. “The activist causes you get involved with [are], in a sense, not all that different from other ways that you put yourself out there and how you spend your time.”
Just as teens’ interests and mediums of self-expression may be changeable, so are their inclinations toward supporting a certain cause. For example, in March 2012, San Diego-based activist group Invisible Children, Inc. released a video titled “Kony 2012” to spread awareness of the violence perpetrated by Joseph Kony in Central Africa. Canyon Crest Academy student Casandra Ramsey (11), already an avid supporter of the cause, was excited that the video garnered 100 million views in less than a week.
“[The success was due to] luck, but also because … they had people working in their offices [who] knew how to grab [teenagers’] attention through social media,” Ramsey said. “[New supporters] got merchandise and went to Cover the Night. I knew some friends who were doing their best, calling up senators [and] trying to get the word out. Having all those supporters helped spread the word, … which helped with projects.”
However, support for Invisible Children fizzled after co-founder Jason Russell was detained by the police because of a psychotic incident unrelated to the work of Invisible Children, and the legitimacy of the organization was called into question, leaving longtime supporters like Ramsey reeling.
“At first, a lot of my friends were with [the cause], and then all of a sudden, they were like, ‘It’s all fake,’” Ramsey said. “[The change] was like night and day. I felt really abandoned by a lot of people … they were realizing what was happening, and then all of a sudden they were gone.”
This pattern is not unique to Kony 2012; the ups and downs of public involvement in ‘going green’ and the widespread but seemingly fleeting support of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that occurs on its annual Day of Silence all provide evidence of the somewhat fickle nature of fad-tivists. According to Singley, the motivation of those who join a cause like an activist movement fall on a spectrum somewhere between two prime impetuses: extrinsic motivation, when one hopes to gain something through involvement, and intrinsic motivation, when the goals of a cause are “congruent with your values.”
“In many cases, one of the big reasons why someone gets involved in a cause is [that] they themselves may have, in their background, some sort of experience which draws [them in],” Singley said. “If you’re Native American, you’re likely to be invested in the legal aspects that impact Native Americans.”
John Boardman, organizer and executive officer of the union UniteHere! Local 25, which represents workers in the hotel industry, encounters varying degrees of participation in demonstrations within even his own professional organization.
“Most people who tend to be … into the more aggressive and confrontational stuff are the ones that are that way all the time, and then there are the others that tend to be more passive, but nevertheless stay engaged either by staying informed about what’s going on or participating in things that are less confrontational,” Boardman said.
When similar situations occur in less professional environments, like a high school, people on the borderline of participation in certain activist causes can be less committed to their cause. TPHS Gay-Straight Alliance member Vonnie Vuagniaux (11) has seen this phenomenon play out on the Day of Silence, an annual event founded by GLSEN in 1996 to create “safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” according to their website. Vuagniaux has observed that while she and many GSA members are as passionate as ever about making a statement, not every participant is an adamant supporter of GSA’s goals.
“Some people [are] truly passionate about [Day of Silence] and [are not] just doing it as a trend,” Vuagniaux said. “But many people [are] doing it as a trend … We have people that [participate in DOS] for an hour, and then then they’re like, ‘Eh, nevermind, I’m not doing this.’ They won’t stay committed to that.”
Even in a microcosm like a high school, teenagers feel the pressure to conform to social norms, so it is no surprise that their choices to join large groups like activist movements are driven by their desires to fit in. For example, according to Pew Research Center, after the Kony 2012 campaign was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey following the video’s release, the number of views increased the following day by 13,536 percent — from 66,000 views to nine million views.
“When you have a group of people … that has views that reflect your own, then that gives you an opportunity to stand up and do what you want to do and say what you want to say,” Vuagniaux said. “Once the majority of the group thinks [an action] is acceptable, then the group that [does not think it is acceptable] is automatically a minority and therefore singled out, [so they] will start joining up just because a lot of people are doing it.”
Conformity and recognition are not the only forces driving bandwagoners, though. According to Singley, curiosity can also draw fad-tivists into the fold.
“Someone might initially get involved because they don’t understand it, [but they want to find out more.]” Singley said.
When a cause garners widespread attention or support, it tends to create a ripple effect that leads people to join it to examine it more closely. This, in turn, generates more support, and so the cycle of attracting people to join who have hopes of finding out exactly what is going on repeats. Then, once people get a taste of it, some choose to drop the cause entirely.
“After everybody did everything they thought they could possibly do [for Kony 2012] and weren’t willing to wait around, they [began] listening to people [saying], ‘This is not true,’ and all this stuff,” Ramsey said. “When Jason [Russell] had his meltdown, that was an excuse to quit on the whole thing. They were listening to other people, and nobody was really looking into it [or] willing to commit.”
Despite the fact that many fad-tivists ultimately the jump off the bandwagon, leaving more dedicated individuals like Ramsey and Vuagniaux to fend for themselves, this involvement, however brief, is not without effect.
“[Large groups of people] do help with publicity and help spread the word, and sometimes new, passionate followers are gained through the process,” Vuagniaux said. “Sometimes, [bandwagoners] can help accomplish goals that couldn’t be reached otherwise, [but] they often give a group a bad name [because] the trend-followers are most often the ones making themselves heard and then falling off [the bandwagon]. They can really make the rest of the group seem as though they’re all bandwagoners and not really dedicated to the actual [cause].”
By the same token, Vuagniaux said that GSA members would not be able to achieve their goals with such great efficacy without the support of non-members.
“[DOS] is about making a statement,” Vuagniaux said. “I don’t feel like going to a [GSA] meeting every week will make me heard. We’re not being seen, we’re not being heard. But when people have a common idea, and when an event like Day of Silence happens, [non-members think] they might as well stand up for it, too.”
Sometimes, the fluctuations of interest are simply caused by a struggle to establish one’s own identity and understand what causes really incite passion in oneself. And so, in their quest for identity and self revelation, fad-tivists march on, searching for the defining cause that will shape their convictions.