Activism, slacktivism, and social media

Activism can encompass a broad range of behaviors. Protesting, letter writing, and organizing in the community can all be considered activism. So can boycotting, civil disobedience, lobbying, and political campaigning. Have you called your senator about any recent votes in Congress? You too are an activist. For those of us from swing states or with swing representatives/senators, our voice can really matter, regardless of the direction you’re advocating for.

For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll focus on a subset of activism: online activism. The advent of the Internet has facilitated a whole new subset of activism that can be engaged in from behind a computer screen. According to Sandor Vegh, online activism is a politically motivated movement that relies on the Internet. The same article also designates three categories of online activism: advocacy, mobilization, and reaction. The Internet allows people to become better educated and to educate their peers, to help get people excited and committed to a cause, and to make a change.

Advocacy may be one of the easier categories to understand. Some of you may remember Kony 2012, the video about a Ugandan war criminal. In one week, it was viewed more than 100 million times, making it the most viral video in history at the time. For reference, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” took 45 days to surpass 100 million views. Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent performance did it in nine days, Justin Bieber’s “Baby” in 56 days and “Charlie Bit My Finger” in 402 days. There were more posts about it on Facebook on March 6 and 7 of that year than the new Apple iPhone and iPad releases. Kony 2012 is a great example of advocacy – engaging people in the issue of war crimes who may not have been educated about the nuances previously.

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Next, mobilization. There’s one particular example of mobilization that comes to mine – one that’s quite current. Resistbot allows anyone to use text messaging or Facebook Messenger to contact their representatives and raise their voices. It’s a free tool that allows people to fax senators and reps, send snail mail and emails, and learn more about town halls. In about 7 months, it amassed 1.4M users (as of September) and between September 18 and 21, it got almost 35,000 new years – when people were agitating around Graham-Cassidy. This tool leverages Facebook and Twitter to reach people who may not have a history of political activism, but are looking to engage.

The final category of action/reaction is the most extreme. One example is hacktivism, where activist groups hack and often release data from target groups. Many of you will remember the WikiLeaks release of DNC emails before the 2016 election. A hacker known as Guccifer 2.0 leaked the emails to WikiLeaks, who subsequently published them. Due to concerns about the way that the DNC handled the primary process, this information was released.

The previous examples can all be seen as relatively successful instance of online activism. However, there is a darker side to online activism – slacktivism.

 

Slacktivism: actions taken to bring about political or social change but requiring only minimal commitment, effort, or risk

While one could argue that campaigns that are often categorized as slacktivist are simply focus on advocacy, many of the proponents had intended for a broader, more engaged outcome than simply many shares or re-tweets.

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We’ve talked previously about the ice bucket challenge. Facebook said that over 17 million videos were uploaded in September 2014, all dedicated to the cause of ALS. This challenge raised $220M, but could have been much more effective if people who posted a video also felt responsible to donate. Many argued that celebrities and other participants were more committed to the stunt than to the actual cause.

There are many ways for the instigators of such efforts to try to push past slacktivism to have a more effective campaign. One option is a Thunderclap – a website that allows organizations to schedule Facebook posts and tweets from any committed individuals ahead of time, to have them all happen at once and increase the likelihood of traction or trending. In doing this, an organization could build in a specific ask for a donation or other behavior that encourages people to take action beyond social media.

Slacktivism also has a clear manifestation in the political space. Where people used to show up at town halls or pick up the phone, now it’s possible to simply text (see above) or fill out a form to have an email go to a representative. These efforts are far less effective than their predecessors. A form email is not interchangeable with a phone call that engages with the person answering the phone, or asking a question at a town hall – but it can make someone feel like they’ve done ‘enough’ and made their voice heard.

There is a silver lining – some research suggests that these little efforts like liking or retweeting pave the way to deeper engagement. Slacktivism may not be as meaningful as showing up in person or making a donation, but it is preferable to nothing at all – and can be seen as an entry point for an organization. The ice bucket challenge is good example here too, as many more people are familiar with ALS than previously, though they may not have donated.

I encourage all of you to think about what matters to you, and how you dedicate your time to it. More specifically, I hope you find ways to get out from behind the screen and dedicate your time to what you care about.

9 comments

  1. Really great post! I remember being in HS when the Kony 2012 movement was going on and how it was a huge topic of discussion. I think its a great example of how large the impact of online activism can be. I had never heard of Resistbot before your post, but it sounds like it could lead to getting more people–especially millennials–involved and voicing political opinions and concerns which is really important. I am interested to see if the use of Resistbot continues to grow in the future. As far as Slacktivism goes, I agree that this is something we see a lot with viral fundraising–I think another example of this is No-Shave November. I have seen a lot of facial hair this past month, but I think people forget that it is a movement that is supposed to raise money/awareness and not something to help you get more likes on Instagram.

  2. Nice post. I do think that social media has the power to motivate people to act, the real question I’m thinking about these days is whether they are motivated to act in helpful or unhelpful ways.

  3. ojeagle121 · ·

    I’m worried that this current discussion on Net Neutrality is falling under slactivism. The day before Thanksgiving, the entirety of Reddit was all about it. To their credit, they did give links that give you information about contacting your representatives. I guess its a fine line to distinguish between online activism and slactivism b/c the internet isn’t tangible and it can be difficult to really define the difference/awareness that people make.

  4. camcurrie99 · ·

    Really insightful post here! Slacktivism and “armchair activists” are things which I have regularly come into contact with during my time volunteering for a worldwide marine conservation organization where people would think that simply posting about the work we did online was enough to make the work better or be able to pay for our supplies, etc. I think many internet users are pretty indifferent to many causes they see online and may not be motivated to help in positive ways just because of a hashtag campaign or something similar. Like Owen says, this could be really important in the current net neutrality discussion where people really do need to make their voice heard to avoid an almost certain vast change of our internet landscape as we know it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. paulandresonbc · ·

    Great post. I remember hearing a lot about the slacktivism debate back when the ice bucket challenge was going viral, and a lot of people in my news feed at the time were outraged by it. To me, I feel like even if making a post and doing nothing more is not getting at solving the problem, at the least it is still creating awareness for a cause. And I don’t really have a huge problem with that

    1. @paulandresonbc – Awareness is great, yes! One of the concerns is that people may feel like they’re “doing something” when they’re really just posting to their friends. While awareness is better than nothing, one quick post with a hashtag doesn’t do much.

  6. ericiangesuale · ·

    I really enjoyed learning more about this! I definitely agree that with the rise of technology, we have become more lazy about making sure our (actual) voice is heard in politics. Your point about the ALS ice bucket challenge is thought provoking… I wonder if had the challenge started off with something like “you either have to donate $30 or donate $5 and get ice bucket-ed” it could have made more money. I remember when it was a big thing people were just doing it and not really conscious about the charitable aspect until it had really saturated the mainstream. I would love to see some data on if there is more interaction with our politicians now due to technology. It may be less high quality, but I wonder if the sheer quantity makes up for it.

  7. emmaelennon · ·

    Pretty sure we’re all guilty of slacktivism one way or another, but I agree — it’s better than nothing if it facilitates future action (although the future action part is key — otherwise its complacency and ultimately harmful “good intentions”). The trick, I think, is minimizing the steps needed for action (far from revolutionary, but overlooked at times). People value their time over anything else, and they want to see immediate results — hence that instant gratification towards your “activism” when you get a like on social media. If companies, organizations, and movements can continue to streamline and simplify the process for action, as well as make those that act/donate/etc feel “special” for their actions, then maybe we can promote the idea that activism can be an everyday occurrence — and that it doesn’t mean you have to be an “activist.”

  8. sejackson33 · ·

    Awesome post! Social media is definitely helpful for spreading awareness and motivating people to act. But it does become a problem when people think simply liking or retweeting a post is their taking action. The ALS ice bucket challenge is a great example of how people participate in social media campaigns in so many different ways. Even if more money could have been raised, as Hilary mentioned in her presentation, “What is ALS?” was the most googled phrase for that year meaning that it was definitely successful in spreading awareness about the disease.

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