This article is part of our November-December focus on Cultural Shift. For more on this theme, click here.
By Hsin-Yi Lo.
Slacktivism is said to be the new form of activism – using social media to declare your support for a social justice cause while not necessarily participating in street rallies, handing out flyers to passers-by or engaging people in profound discussions about human rights. Perhaps the most attractive side of this trend is the knowledge that one has participated in a good cause yet with minimal effort. But can you end world poverty and conflicts by sharing a post on Facebook? Can a hashtag trigger a pivotal change that stops a brutal dictator oppressing citizens?
What is slacktivism?
The term “slacktivism” was first coined by English-Canadian journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, who defined it as “the way of the new style activist who just signs online petitions and shares on Facebook, instead of the banner waving, old fashioned street style, brawling with coppers activist days”.
Using online platforms to campaign and reaching an audience is in vogue because many of us are using social media. As declared by Sheryl Sanberg, the Chief Operation Officer of Facebook and co-chair of the World Economic Forum, social media is “now a part of everyday life”. Social media platforms are the new information hub and a popular host for public dialogue and debates. Human rights organisations and activists have converted campaign messages to cater for the social media format – quick, attention-grabbing, and simple yet with the ability to empower everyone to participate in creating change. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and online petitions such as Change.org are just some of the usual platforms used by activists.
For example, Amnesty International ran a Facebook campaign which asked followers to sign a petition demanding Shell Oil Company’s CEO Peter Voser to stop the exploitation of the Niger Delta. And, more recently, the hashtags: #Assad, #Syria and #PrayForSyria are shared by global citizens to increase awareness of the Syrian crisis. Moreover, a petition was circulated by Campaign of Global Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, who asked the world to pressure Assad’s regime into ending the conflict and human rights abuses.
Can slacktivism motivate everyone?
Slacktivism does have its perks. It can engage and empower anyone; the voiceless, those with a social conscience who nonetheless feel helpless to make changes. It even has the capacity to inspire non-practitioners of social activism to take part in a good cause by just sharing a post and joining in Twitter discussions.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, citizens in the Middle East and North Africa held simultaneous protests against dictatorship and oppression, and social media was hailed as one of the key factors in helping protestors coordinate rallies and demonstrations. Further, demonstrators were able to provide instant updates that could be viewed by other Twitter users, thereby stimulating global discussions about the uprisings. Journalist Courtney C Radsch discussed the role of slacktivists in the Arab Spring:
“Twitter hashtags #jan25, #Egypt and #Mubarak were all worldwide trending topics for the first several days of the protests. And becoming a trending topic helps generate media attention, even as it helps organize information. The power of social media to help shape the international news agenda is one of the ways in which they subvert state authority and power”.
Defenders of slacktivism argue that this new trend has the power to instigate public interests and discussions, which can be considered the preliminary step towards awareness and future actions. Kate Knibbs, a writer of technological trends, wrote in an opinion piece for Digital Trends:
“Just look at how Aids.gov is encouraging people interested in its cause to use Instagram. Aids.gov encourages HIV community-based organizations to use Instagram to de-stigmatize the disease and increase awareness, and they give step-by-step instructions how to post to the photo-sharing app. Will it cure AIDs? No. Will it start a conversation? Yes.”
Kony 2012: Success or Failure?
The release of the Kony 2012 short film by US non-for-profit organisation, Invisible Children, presents an interesting and thought-provoking case study on the effectiveness and limitations of slacktivism. Invisible Children said the video aims to “make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”According to statistics,more than 70 million had watched the video (as of 12 March 2012) and Joseph Kony became a household name. He is now known to us as the brutal Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Army Resistance (LRA), which is a rebel group active in the areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Central African Republic. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has accused Kony with crimes against humanity, murder, sexual enslavement and recruiting child soldiers.
Before the video, Kony was almost unheard of, yet the 30-minute film successfully inspired a global movement that vowed to bring down the leader. Invisible Children had set 20 April 2012 to be the day of the “Stop Kony” campaigns to come into effect. People donned red “Stop Kony” t-shirts, and 50,000 Australians joined in the pledge to pressure international leaders to capture Kony and end the LRA’s war crimes. In major cities of the United States such as New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Diego and Texas, wanted posters of Kony were stuck around the streets. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that #stopkony was one of the most popular topics discussed around the world. The Philly Mag also reported that:
“Within hours of its release, KONY 2012 was trending on Twitter and Reddit. The Facebook page shows Kony on a poster alongside Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler. If you use Twitter with any regularity, you have seen the hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 being tweeted by celebrities like Oprah, Rihanna and Justin Bieber.”
Criticisms of slacktivism
Online activism has been accused of oversimplifying issues and giving the impression that things can be solved just by the tip of your fingers (literally). Kony 2012 was panned for streamlining the complex political and social turmoils in Uganda – it gave the idea that capturing Kony would eliminate all of Uganda’s problems. Reporter Michael Wilkerson, who had spent time in Uganda, commented:
“It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”
Slacktivism is criticised for lacking proper and meaningful engagement with people and undervaluing the role of political participation. Critics argue that activism is about communal gatherings, solidarity, demonstrations and working cohesively to influence and inspire others to join the cause through face-to-face interactions.
Gladwell argues that activists involved in actual political participation are the ones who will commit unconditionally. He referenced the Greensboro sit-ins civil rights movement in the 1960s as the prime example. The movement was started by four college students, known as the Greensboro Four, who endured discrimination in a white-owned restaurant. Gladwell wrote that the students were even threatened by a local Ku Klux Klan leader. Yet, they were not discouraged but continued with their goals. Their determination to achieve racial equality inspired many African-American students to join in and, as Jim Schlosser, a staff writer for The Story of the Greensboro Sit-Ins, puts it, “attacking the social order of the time”.
Three volunteers were murdered, black churches were burnt and some activists abandoned their mission. Although there were some grim episodes, Gladwell maintains that activism is about involving oneself in making the changes and inspiring others through action. He justifies his pointy by writing:
“What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. ‘All of the applicants – participants and withdrawals alike – emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,’ he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts – the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities – and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.”
Further, slacktivism cannot anchor genuine commitment because slacktivists want to boost their image within their social media circle. A study conducted by University of British Columbia suggested that people who pledge their support for charity publicly on social media, can be less likely to give a donation to that cause. Instead, slacktivism seems to only create a fleeting feel-good sentiment – after you have shared a post on Facebook, you may believe you have contributed to a worthwhile movement. Academic Evgeny Morozov argued:
“It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group. Remember that online petition that you signed and forwarded to your entire contacts list? That was probably an act of slacktivism”.
Sure enough, the idea of making a difference in the world with the click of a mouse is very enticing. Slacktivism can empower anyone to feel they can participate and do their bit for humanity. Further, it can play an effective role in spreading messages very quickly and facilitate public discussions and rallies.
But does slacktivism sell the harmful message that the cause of human rights abuses, poverty, conflict and violence can be uprooted simply by hashtagging and retweeting? Perhaps it does; slacktivism simplifies issues to a few catchy lines.
If we look throughout history, all struggles for social change and justice have not been done without active political participation, demonstrations, engagement with the public and inspiring others to sacrifice time – and even lives – for the next generation. Online activism, however, cannot replace this as it seems to infer social change can be achieved with minimal efforts and solidarity, and a firm knowledge of global issues and politics.
Hsin-Yi Lo is currently serving as the Project Officer of the National Ethnic & Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council (NEMBC). She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree and a Bachelor of Arts (Media/Communications), majoring in Media/Communications and International Relations. She is passionate about writing current affairs, international relations, social issues and human rights affairs.