The Dawn of Slacktivism

The stigma around social media activism is deeply rooted - but is it warranted?

Good old Facebook activism. When you care, but not enough to get off your chair.

Recently, the words “Facebook activism” have been widely replaced by the more popular term “slacktivism”: the show of support for a political or social cause via actions on the internet that demand little time and commitment (or movement). That definition itself likely lumps together much of our digital generation, myself included, who have passively shown support for movements through Facebook likes or Twitter hearts, all from the comfort of our own homes.

Slacktivism is manifested in feel-good politics, and it’s become commonplace to re-post or re-tweet pictures with simultaneously vague and pressing captions such as “We need action now” or “This needs to end,” that usually follow with no concrete course of action.

Despite prominent and widespread social movements that were born in the online space, there continues to be a certain stigma attached to “lazy” social media activism-- and understandably, legitimate concerns that have fueled it. But as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we may have to be willing to concede power from traditional posters and billboards to the hoards of social media “clicktivists”. For millennials today, change is just one click away.

When slacktivism does little to help

I remember a few years ago when some of the very gruesome pictures and videos of civilians suffering in Aleppo started trending on social media. Innocent men and women were covered in blood, crying out in anguish, and we were the ones who had first row seats to see it all unfold as pictures hopped between Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds.

There was one picture I still get shudders thinking about: five-year-old Omran Daqnneesh sitting in an ambulance after being rescued from a building following air strikes in Aleppo. I remember his grey body, covered in dust, stark against the red blood dripping down the side of his face, and the orange of the ambulance chair. He is dazed but he doesn’t cry--instead, he starts wiping the blood off his face, smearing it onto the chair instead. I remember wanting to reach into my screen, pull him out of that picture, and cradle some innocence back into him. But of course, I couldn’t do all that - and so, I likely just re-shared his picture to Facebook.

As pictures of war-torn children float around the web, racking up the likes and re-tweets of “clicktivists”, little has changed on the ground in Syria. Many more unnamed Omran’s would be swallowed whole by this war. 

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Proponents of slacktivism may argue that these pictures raise awareness about both the suffering taking place in Syria, and the international community’s lack of action in these scenarios. But raising awareness about an issue, while important, doesn't always equate to concrete action. The seven-year-old Syrian civil war, with an estimated 40,000 causalities, is a testament to that. 

When it comes to raising awareness, I would even go as far as to argue it could have adverse effects. In cases like Syria’s with mass casualties and stark human suffering plastered over social media, it’s hard to ignore these pictures, at first. Eventually, we scroll past them without giving them a second glance. While our intentions may be in the right place, slacktivism prompts us to hop on the bandwagon of whatever social or political movement is trending, changing Facebook profile pictures or superimposing existing filters on old ones, to support issues we may know nothing about or have no real vested interest in. This can ultimately lead to movements dying down when online “clicktivists” feel they have done their part by sharing pictures or tweeting about conflicts.

Clicking in protest

However, while slacktivism may have proved ineffective in resolving civil war and impeaching oppressive regimes, there are many cases where it proved vital to the birth and sustenance of social movements.

A study published in 2015 by the University of Pennsylvania studied the role of Twitter slacktivism in several key political movements. They found that slacktivists compose what they dubbed to be “the critical periphery,” that allowed for a localized movement to double its reach and gain recognition at a national or international level. While someone might like or share something once or twice, combined with an online community of millions of people, collective clicks can really pack a punch.

Sandra González- Bailon, lead researcher of the study, argued in a press release statement that, obviously, slacktivism couldn’t get very far on its lonesome. But alongside a core of dedicated, on-the-ground activists, it was “quintessential to understanding why products go viral or protests go big."

And boy oh boy, have protests and movements gone big this year. From #MeToo, to #TimesUp, to #NeverAgain, to #MarchforourLives, it seems all we’ve been doing this past year is fighting the status quo – and then tweeting about it.

Following the Parkland shooting on Feb 14, high school students channelled their anger to launch a social media campaign pushing for gun reform laws on Facebook and Twitter, that would soon spark the viral hashtag #NeverAgain. On Twitter alone, the hashtag was used a total of 31 000 times, and had a social media reach of 107 million people following the week of the shooting, according to Keyhole, a hashtag tracking site. That statistic doesn’t even begin to account for the other hashtags associated with the movement like #gunreformnow or #wecallbs or #Marchforourlives.  

The teens’ social media tirade won their movement both immense support and concrete action. Florida legally changed the age of owning a gun from 18 to 21 years of age, media outlets flocked to Parkland to cover protests and conduct interviews, and thousands of students walked out of schools across cities all over the country to demand stricter gun laws.

 (New York Times/Kristen Luce)

(New York Times/Kristen Luce)

There’s no denying the movement’s success can be attributed, at least in part, to slacktivism. The retweets, shares and likes on social media have snagged people’s attention and held onto it, at least for the time being. Perhaps slacktivism - by the nature of it being rooted in the virtual world as opposed to the tangible one – is uncovering what many have known about traditional protest culture for a long time: get enough people talking, and you’re bound to get enough attention you need to enact change.

Slacktivism plays off the global nature of the Internet. It sees how digitalized and interconnected the world has become and takes advantage of this to dissipate movements and messages like wildfire. Take for example another wildly popular movement –  the #MeToo movement from 2017 that engulfed with it the silence and taboo around sexual assault. Women all over the virtual world were slowly chipping away at the marble pedestals atop which the powerful Harvey Weinstein’s, Louie C.K.’s and Bill O’Reilly’s of the world sat. Clicks and posts and re-tweets of women and men unearthing buried stories of assault gave other clicktivists incentive to do the same, propelling the movement forward.

Gonzalez mentioned in her press release that slacktivism doesn’t force you to “get off your seat and fight.” And to a certain extent, I agree. Slacktivism requires little effort, energy or time – but that’s what makes it so effective, and that’s why people continue to engage in this way.

Perhaps social media is rendered ineffective when it comes to resolving large-scale civil war conflicts with multiple players and factions. But give credit where credit is due –  the power and effect of social media activism, especially in a globalized world, is a force to be reckoned with.