In my best impression of Alan Partridge, I recently lost my rag with someone in the street by shouting at them, "that's not how tigers die!" An unusual form of insult, I'm sure you'll agree. The person in question was a chugger, probably from the World Wildlife Fund or somewhere, who had been trying to block my path in the now-standard manner of waving a clipboard in my face and doing a silly little dance. But as I walked past, still smiling falsely at them, they had the nerve to say "this isn't about a direct debit! I just want you to send one text and save a tiger!"
How dare they? How dare they insult both me and the tiger community (as they are probably known), by implying some equivalence between a text message and a tiger's life. An absence of text messages, as I informed the young chugger, is "not how tigers die". I am usually a more gracious respondent - chuggee? - than that, but I am becoming increasingly wound up by the marketing strategies of charities and their phoney account of digital media. Exhibit B:
Again, the imputed equivalence in this advert is horrific, and entirely unbecoming of a charity of Amnesty's stature. This is one of a series of ads on the London underground, implying some magical omnipotence to the possessor of a commuter with a mobile phone (or, conversely, some peculiar impotence or triviality on the part of a prison guard or torturer several thousand miles away).
First and foremost, the advert is a lie, although the word "and" is of course ambiguous. Maybe they're not implying any causal link between the two events, in which case one might place an advert saying "A man in Colchester shops in Tescos and he wins the lottery". Maybe that's what most advertising effectively does anyway, but the bit after the "and" is normally represented with an image, to the effect that "a man uses a deoderant and [image of woman with large breasts]".
But there is something more troubling about this, than just standard marketing mendaciousness. Adam Smith was concerned by the fact that human beings seem to feel less sympathy for others, the further they are away (see this interesting piece in the LRB on how this problem manifests itself in climate change). This is not a problem that can be easily solved or got round. But the strategy of these charities is not to work on increasing the level of sympathy, but of trivialising the nature of the problem. In the advert above, it is assumed by Amnesty that human beings (at least in London) have very little capacity to imagine the situation of others, to sympathise over distance or to adopt an unconditional moral position. Rather than nurture imagination, sympathy or moral sentiment, the advertisement effectively suppresses those things by containing them within the solipsistic realms of the ego-phone. The individual's solitary comfort zone is reinforced by this, rather than rattled in any way.
Aside from this, there is also the problem of economic and technological functionalism, that I've complained about before, in which social life is reduced to a series of inputs and outputs. Institutions are hollowed out by a philosophy that understands them entirely in terms of their measured outputs, rather than their routines and rules. But when digital technology is thrown into the mix, something quite preposterous happens: the relationship between input and unput becomes utterly mystified, as if it's no longer anything to do with us. The therapeutic role of digital media is to allow an instrumental view of social relations to be propagated, in which the instrument somehow suspends any sense of moral causality or responsibility. Between the 'input' and the 'output' is a machine that we are blissfully unable or unwilling to understand. Hence, the possibility that clicking "send" might stop a stoning in Iran.
What does Amnesty or anyone else gain from this? Their aim seems to be to build up a database of phone numbers, as the tiger chuggers were apparently doing also. Hopefully this makes them better equipped to prevent torture and illegal imprisonment; they must know what they're doing. But they're also engaged in a political equivalent of "quantitative easing", which runs the risk of political hyper-inflation: in their desparate bid to get political will moving, they're exaggerating the efficacy of their tactics, to the point where they will start to lose value. A greater and greater 'quantity' of political output is being promised, for a smaller and smaller 'quantity' of ethical action on the part of the Western consumer. As credulity declines as well, the long-run effect can only be bad for the charitable sector as a whole.