Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, 35, took the evangelical world by storm a few years ago with the launch of his “Two Futures Project,” a movement to mobilize Christians for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. His work sparked a national conversation on these issues among Christians, and he has since been named the chairman of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. After years of activism, he’s written a provocative new book titled, The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good. Here we talk about the Christian “cause culture” and the space between “liking Facebook pages” and the complexity of global problems.
JM: How has social media changed our awareness and action toward causes?
TWS: It’s easy to see why social media seems like catnip to many professional activists. After all, a lot of activism is based around the idea that if you can just get a lot of people thinking and acting the same way toward a common cause, you can enact the desired change.
But it’s not simple to turn the potential energy afforded by social media – “Millions of people could see my Tweet!” – into the force required for good activism. Facebook, Twitter, Google Circles, etc., all represent amalgamations of overlapping niche networks: the power of a Facebook recommendation is that it’s coming from a friend, whom you trust. This means that truly mass appeal for causes tend to be either rare and unpredictable/unrepeatable – the viral video, story, etc. that crosses niche boundaries – or result from more traditional centralized channels. Kony 2012 was a great example of the latter: it spread like wildfire because Invisible Children had done such an amazing job with their “ground game” in the preceding years, building up a core base of passionate support.
This is why social media isn’t a magic wand for causes. It’s easy enough to retweet a message or like something on Facebook, but without sacrifice and personal commitment that goes way beyond those sorts of actions, change is impossible. Instead, social media ought to be viewed by those interested in causes as a force multiplier, and a tool to be used to complement more traditional tactics. There’s no better example than the organizing that went on with the Arab Spring. Activists used social media to circumvent authoritarian government crackdown, but it wasn’t an online revolution. Change happens when people have skin in the game.