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.
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.
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.