Social media has become a tool used to share opinions, broadcast ideas, connect with others and even learn to make a killer pot of soup. The ease with which we can click the “like”, “retweet”, and “share” buttons makes it simple to reach a wide audience. However, is the posting of opinions supporting a certain cause able to make a concerted difference in the long term? Clearly, there are a number of visible advantages to the use of social media in the organization of protests and movements. Think back to the Arab Spring in which Twitter and Facebook pages were dedicated to social and political change in Egypt and the Arab states played a crucial role in the fall of dictatorships across the Middle East. In these movements, social media was used to organize protests, warn others of secret police arrests, and promote the cause for millions of users around the world to engage in the struggle. Again during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, social media became a critical means of communication among rescuers and victims. Searches and rescues were often organized using social media platforms and updates from the crisis were spread around the world. This information led to millions of dollars in aid being donated and thousands of volunteer teams being deployed. It is clear that online activism does play a crucial role in the dissemination of important information during crises. Aside from raising awareness about political turmoil and global catastrophes, social media also plays a role in promoting the work of social organizations, raising money for various causes, and even promoting social justice issues. Why then, is the term slacktivism used to describe those who use social media to promote or support a cause?
Slacktivism has come under scrutiny in recent years due to several factors. In one sense, it requires little to no effort for those involved. Simply clicking on a button can give users an euphoric sense of participation in doing something good for someone else. It has often been argued that this feeling supersedes the actual effects of the cause itself, letting online activists spiral into a vacuum of self-promotion rather than participating in true change. As seen in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, videos were posted by the thousands but few made mention of the cause or the reason for taking part. It became a huge popularity contest among some participants who tried to come up with the most creative way to take part. Some celebrities opted to donate instead of creating a viral video thus choosing to draw attention away from the personal aspect and make it strictly about the cause. The reality is that the ease with which we can take part in these campaigns and the publicity inherently involved translates to little true engagement. The business and intensity that dictates our Western lifestyles means that as soon as the “like” or “share” button is clicked, the message is soon forgotten. In Kirk Kristofferson’s recent research, it became apparent that
“those whose initial act of support is done more privately (for example, writing to a member of Congress) are more likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on. Those whose initial support is public (i.e. through posting to Facebook or Twitter) are less likely to engage more deeply”-Kirk Kristofferson et al.
Therefore it appears that the more public the initial action, the less likely that engagement in social action causes will remain high.
I grew up in Mali, West Africa. When teachers went on strike, students would riot in the streets, burning tires and blocking traffic. Why? They believed in their right to an education. I saw kids like the one pictured above begging on the streets everyday. I find it hard to reconcile the click of a button with the feeling that a difference is being made. However, I do believe that slacktivism can be an important precursor to true activism. Is slacktivism a waste of time? I don’t believe so. As mentioned, the awareness drawn to social causes is immeasurable. It is unknown who will view your “posts”, “likes”, “shares” and “retweets”. It could be the start of something big for someone else. The reality is that many in the Western world exist in everyday lives that are comfortable, predictable, and not easily shaken. It becomes extremely difficult to justify the extrication of oneself from a life of relative comfort to march, strike, protest, or donate life savings to a cause. Enter the world of easy, one-time engagement in social issues. We can’t all sell our homes and move to war-torn countries to give aid on the ground. It’s just not practical. However, as suggested in the video below, there are measures we can take to ensure that if we truly believe in something, we can do our best to make a lasting difference.
- Ask yourself why you’re sharing or liking? What’s the purpose?
- Have you done some research? Go beyond the initial viral video you see to uncover more of the story behind the cause.
- Try engaging in a more private manor (i.e. an anonymous donation, WorldVision Sponsor a Child). With the publicity component removed, there will be deeper engagement with the cause.
- To see true change, find ways to alter the context the person is in.
Social media has been an amazing tool for the promotion of social and political movements. Raising awareness is a key factor in the fight for change. Slacktivists, keep clicking those “like”, “share” and “retweet” buttons. Activists, it’s just possible you may have some former slacktivists joining your ranks very soon. Activist or slacktivist, don’t we all desire a better world?
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