Slacktivism

kony 2012

ice bucket challenge

Slacktivism (‘slacker activism’) is a sometimes pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from having contributed. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them, although this assumption has not been borne out by research.

Proponents argue that slacktivism plays a significant role in repressive and authoritarian regimes. Journalist Courtney C. Radsch argues that low level engagement was an important form of activism for Arab youth during the Arab Spring because it was an outlet for free speech and sparked mainstream media coverage. She contends that when a hashtag becomes ‘a trending topic [it] 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.’

Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization’s efforts, copying and pasting of social network statuses or messages, or altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services. Research is beginning to explore the connection between the concept and modern activism/advocacy, as groups are increasingly using social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action. The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS describes the term ‘slacktivist,’ saying it ‘posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.’

The term was coined by authors and event organizers Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 at the Cornerstone Festival, a Christian music event in Illinois. It originally had a positive connotation and referred to bottom up activities by young people to affect society on a small, personal scale (such as planting a tree, as opposed to participating in a protest). Radio host and political commentator Dan Carlin started using the term on his show in the late 90s and may have coined the present day meaning. It is still used positively by some though. Anti-scam crusader Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes.com has said of her work: ‘It’s all fed by slacktivism … the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair.’

Another example appeared in technology critic Evgeny Morozov’s 2001 book, ‘Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.’ In it Morozov relates slacktivism to the Colding-Jorgensen experiment: In 2009, Danish psychologist Colding Jorgensen created a fictitious Facebook group as part of his research. On the page, he posted an announcement suggesting that the Copenhagen city authorities would be demolishing a historic city fountain. 125 Facebook members joined Jorgensen’s page within the first day, and the number of fans began to grow at a staggering rate, eventually reaching 27,500. Morozov argues the Colding-Jorgensen experiment reveals a key component of slacktivism: ‘When communication costs are low, groups can easily spring into action.’ Technology writer Clay Shirky also similarly characterized slacktivism as ‘ridiculously easy group forming.’

Yet skepticism of slacktivism’s value certainly exists. Particularly, some argue that it entails an underlying assumption that all problems can be seamlessly fixed using social media, and while this may be true for local issues, slacktivism could prove ineffective for solving global predicaments. A 2009 NPR piece by Morozov asked whether ‘the publicity gains gained through this greater reliance on new media [are] worth the organizational losses that traditional activist entities are likely to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from conventional (and proven) forms of activism.’

Criticism of slacktivism often involves the idea that internet activities are ineffective, and/or that they prevent or lessen political participation in real life. However, as many studies on slacktivism relate only to a specific case or campaign, it is difficult to find an exact percentage of slacktivist actions that reach a stated goal. Furthermore, many studies also focus on such activism in democratic or open contexts, whereas the act of publicly liking, RSVPing, or adopting an avatar or slogan as one’s profile picture can be a defiant act in authoritarian or repressive countries. The Western-centric nature of the critique of slacktivism discounts the impact it can have in authoritarian or repressive contexts. In addition, studies suggest that ‘fears of Internet activities supplanting real life activity are unsubstantiated,’ in that they do not cause a negative or positive effect on political participation. A 2011 study looking at college students found only a small positive correlation between those that engage online in politics on Facebook with those that engage off of it. Those who did engage only did so by posting comments and other low forms of political participation, helping to confirm the slacktivism theoretical model.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, in a 2010 ‘New Yorker article,’ lambasted those who compare social media ‘revolutions’ with actual activism that challenges the status quo. He argued that today’s social media campaigns can’t compare with activism that takes place on the ground, using the Greensboro sit-ins as an example of what real, high-risk activism looks like. He writes: ‘As the historian Robert Darnton has written, ‘The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.’ But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.’

In response, Leo Mirani wrote a column for ‘The Guardian’ arguing that Gladwell might be right if activism is defined only as sit-ins, taking direct action, and confrontations on the streets. However, if activism is about arousing awareness of people, changing people’s minds, and influencing opinions across the world, then ‘the revolution will be indeed be tweeted,’ ‘hashtagged,’ and ‘YouTubed.’ In a 2012 ‘Financial Times’ article, referring to efforts to address the on-going violence related to the Lord’s Resistance Army, Matthew Green wrote that the slactivists behind the ‘Kony 2012’ video had ‘achieved more with their 30-minute video than battalions of diplomats, NGO workers and journalists have since the conflict began 26 years ago.’

Despite the pejorative connotation of the term, a 2011 correlational study conducted by Georgetown University entitled ‘The Dynamics of Cause Engagement’ determined that so-called slacktivists are indeed ‘more likely to take meaningful actions.’ Notably, ‘slacktivists participate in more than twice as many activities as people who don’t engage in slacktivism, and their actions have a higher potential to influence others.’ These ‘social champions’ have the ability to directly link social media engagement with responsiveness, leveraging their transparent dialogue into economic, social or political action.

Slacktivism has be called a secure, low cost, effective means of organizing that is environmentally friendly. Andrew Leonard, a staff writer at ‘Salon,’ who published an article on the ethics of smartphones and how we use them, argued that though the means of producing these products go against ethical human rights standards, he encourages their use on the basis that the technology they provide can be utilized as a means of changing the problematic situation of their manufacture. The ability to communicate quickly and on a global scale enables the spread of knowledge, such as the conditions that corporations provide to the workers they employ, and the effect that widespread manufacturing has on globalization.

Others keep a slightly optimistic outlook on the possibilities of slacktivism while still acknowledging the pitfalls that come with this digital form of protest. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, analyzed the capacity of slacktivism to influence collective group action in a variety of different social movements. She acknowledged that digital activism is a great enabler of rising social and political movements, and it is an effective means of enabling differential capacity building for protest, but cautioned that the enhanced ability to rally protest is accompanied by a weakened ability to actually make an impact, as slacktivism can fail to reach the level of protest required in order to bring about change.

The term ‘clicktivism’ is sometimes used to describe activists using social media to organize protests. It allows organizations to quantify their success by keeping track of how many ‘clicked’ on their petition or other call to action. For example, the British group ‘UK Uncut’ use Twitter and other websites to organize protests and direct action against companies accused of tax avoidance. This varies from slacktivism in that it merely replaces older ways of communicating a protest’s existence (telephone, word of mouth, leaflets etc) and does actually involve a real life, physical protest. On the other hand, clicktivism is also sometimes used to describe forms of internet based slacktivism such as signing online petitions or signing and sending form letter emails to politicians or corporate CEOs. Critics claim that this new phenomenon makes social movements resemble advertising campaigns in which messages are tested, clickthrough rate is recorded, and A/B testing is often done. In order to improve these metrics, messages are reduced to make their ‘asks easier and actions simpler.’ This in turn reduces social action to having members that are a list of email addresses, rather than engaged people.

‘Charity slacktivism’ includes posting a Facebook status to support a cause, ‘liking’ a charity organization’s cause on Facebook, tweeting or retweeting a charity organization’s request for support on Twitter, signing Internet petitions, and posting and sharing YouTube videos about a cause. Examples include the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign that exploded briefly in social media in March 2012. Examples of offline charity slacktivism include awareness wristbands and paraphernalia in support of causes, such as the Livestrong wristband, as well as bumper stickers and mobile donating.

Another form of charity slacktivism is a good with a charitable donation tied to it. This is the act of purchasing products that highlight support for a particular cause and advertize that a percentage of the cost of the good will go to it. In some instances the donated funds are spread across various entities within one foundation, which in theory helps several deserving areas of the cause. Criticism tends to highlight the thin spread of the donation. An example of this is the ‘Product Red’ campaign, whereby consumers can buy Red-branded variants of commons products, with a proportion of proceeds going towards fighting AIDS. Slacktivists may also purchase a product from a company because it has a history of donating funds to charity, as a way to second-handedly support a cause. For example, a slacktivist may buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because its founders are known to support environmental causes.

One Comment to “Slacktivism”

  1. That is a real halloween costume, btw, and that is the actual price.

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