by Geoff Olson

I used to get regular bulk emails from a BC activist about the perils of GMO foods, nuclear radiation, toxic trade agreements, climate change, and the like. The stories were accompanied by his commentary, which ran something like this: How can people be such sheep? Why are they so blind? Act now or we are doomed! Silence is complicity!

The hyperbole wasn’t without some truth. But when you start blaming your audience for inaction on the very events you are flagging, the response is more likely to be pessimism than slacktivism – at least from the likes of me.

Similarly, the online journal Nation of Change alerts readers by email to its newest stories, with funding pleas attached. Typical subject headings have included, “Why we give a damn, and why you should too,”  “We’re actually running out of time,” and “We’re confident that you’ll come through.”

Sometimes I don’t the unsolicited emails from Nation of Change because of the panicky, personalized subject headings – and I’m someone who resonates with their advocacy journalism. If they dialed down their rhetoric, there’s a better chance I’d send some bucks their way.

I appreciate the problem that news blogs, charities, and NGOs have, particularly on the web. You try to open people’s hearts, minds, and wallets by leveraging the world’s bad craziness into worst-case scenarios, and then discover an audience overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. Tough gig. senior editor David Wong knows the ropes. “The news blogs many of you read? The people running them know the same thing. Every site is in a dogfight for traffic…and so they carefully pick through the wires for the most inflammatory story possible. The other blogs start echoing the same story from the same point of view. If you want, you can surf all day and never swim out of the warm, stagnant waters of the “aren’t those bastards evil” pool,” observes Wong.

As an info-junkie and journalist, I find tough-minded commentary as addictive as sugar. But the flip side is the cognitive equivalent of insulin shock. After mainlining dirty deeds and dire trends for several days in succession, I’m about ready for a compassion crash and cat video binge.

There’s always been a social tension between the canaries and the coalminers; between the whistleblowers and the wageslaves. Sibel Edmonds knows this well. Called “the most-classified woman in US history,” the former FBI language analyst posted a dispirited  message last year on

“They say we need more revelations. I say we have had more than enough revelations on synthetic wars, atrocities, surveillance and torture. They wonder when the majority of Americans are going to speak up. And I say: The American Majority has already spoken—loud and clear. The United States government has been engaged in the worst kind of human rights abuses, detention and torture around the globe. That’s a fact. And the American Majority knows this…. They have spoken: with their silence,” wrote Edmonds.

When HBO’s John Oliver went into the streets of New York with questions about Edward Snowden, he found most pedestrians couldn’t recall the name. Perhaps it’s because the NSA whistleblower wasn’t a fixture for long in the broadsheets and broadcasts. Or perhaps it’s because details from his classified cache of documents left a smaller footprint on social media sites than Miley Cyrus’s misadventures with a giant foam finger.

Whatever the reason for the knowledge/concern gap, it’s disturbing that so little has come of Snowden’s efforts to warn Americans, Canadians and Britons of the open-air electronic prison that’s being assembled around them.

According to one survey, four in 10 Canadians say they hadn’t had a single political conversation in the past 12 months. People understandably tune out when they feel electoral democracy is being twisted into a game for the prosperous few rather than a forum for the restless many – but doesn’t apathy make for a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There’s a whole generation of websurfers who get the bulk of their news through clickbait listicles, trending tweets, and social media flame wars, rather than the long-form journalism of outlets like Nation of Change or Truthdig. Amusing ourselves to death has never been so effortless. And I fully realize that last line reads like something the BC activist would have written in an bulk email.

The Vancouver Courier, May 22


  1. This is great, Geoff – a really salient issue for most of us, and certainly myself. I too have been really frustrated that the NGO’s few chosen posting headline words are not the best to hook the hoi poloi, and tend to be framed from the viewpoints of the “in group” of the NGO.

    As far as not being connected to improving the world – I have a feeling that this has always been the norm throughout all existence of all species. Most people probably don’t make decisions based on system 2, deep thinking, but rather system 1, automatic quick easy thinking, probably dipping heavily into the fight or flight chemicals. “I’ve always been a Demecrat, like my Daddy before me!”

    Going along to get along.

    My own “rationality” is probably based on my own biases, so that I too, am like those that decide/vote based on fear.

    Despite Harper’s dismantling of all Canadians hold dear, he just seems more stable than the other two, from the point of view of too many people. Sigh…

    Though of course I’ll vote strategically, to stop the disintegration of civilization, rather than my preference, which is to give the Greens support.

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