Slacktivism: How powerful is online activism?

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Slacktivism is a funny little hybrid word – a portmanteau of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’. 

It applies to ‘actions taken to bring about political or social change but requiring only minimal commitment, effort, or risk’, but more generally referring to the casual liking or retweeting of political or issue-led content online in lieu of mobilising IRL.

Over the last two years it’s received a serious amount of mixed press. On the one hand, it’s drawing attention to campaigns and causes that need them. On the other, slacktivism carries a pejorative undertone – implies people are interacting online to look good or feel good rather than actually engaging or committing to a cause. Is this all it is? Is it just a lot of talk but not a lot of do? 

As a digital native who often finds themselves writing about activism – in particular those related to climate change, mental health, and equality – this is something that has increasingly bothered me. And you know me – if something causes a bother then it’s time to ask some questions and find a few answers.

So where does activism end and slacktivism begin? Does it even matter?

This time last year the world was still reeling in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, #JeSuisCharlie was still trending, and discussions about freedom of speech and solidarity were rife.

Before that it was #BringBackOurGirls, the #NoMakeUpSelfie, the #IceBucketChallenge, the now national US movement #BlackLivesMatter.

Since then we’ve had a variety of #IStandWith campaigns, the #MillionMaskMarch and of course #PrayForParis, just to name a few.

If you spend any time on social media, you’ll notice a swathe of other less noticeable or memorable campaigns round and about – Twitter hashtags trending around an issue for a few days, videos leaping towards going viral but not quite hitting the mark. Likewise, there are green hearts around Instagram shared by ‘green hearted eco warriors’, and of course the all-too-familiar, tear-jerking charity videos that crop up across Facebook.

People ‘like’ these things. They share these things. They leave comments and tag their friends. Sometimes they include emojis to show enthusiasm.

Others are more critical. What does ‘liking’ a clip on Facebook really do to help starving children? What does sharing an article on fracking really do to solve the potential health and environmental problems underpinning the issue?

And yes, technically online solidarity does nothing. Clicking doesn’t exactly help in the way donating time, food, tech, or other necessities helps. Sharing the story of the refugee cat that was reunited with his humans isn’t going to keep that family warm or clothed or fed.

It’s armchair activism – passive activism – the ultimate oxymoron.

And ‘proper’ activists have historically become quite irate when talking about it.

Activism is supposed to be action on behalf of a cause. Intended to take an issue beyond convention or routine, the definition implies challenge, disruption, a movement aspiring towards a social goal.

Yet in this definition there is a lack of clarity – it doesn’t need to be a rally or a protest but can be a petition, a face-to-face discussion, a conference. It could be peaceful, violent, or a boycott.

Within this lack of distinction there’s evolved a curious space for slacktivism to find its niche. To be clicktivism – the less negative description of online activism.

Social media has made news quicker, more interactive, more immediate and (as I’ve written historically) tapped straight into our sense of collective consciousness. Sure, Internet culture is more transient. The solidarity and community created by a viral sensation arrives, booms, fades – blown into ethernet dust.

However, real impact does come from incentivising the World Wide Web. And there is a lot we can learn from activists using online and mobile methods.

Not least of these is the fact that campaigners can capitalise on our digital dependencies such as smart phones and apps. By tapping into social it’s possible to engage those periphery influencers who, whilst not as involved as the core, are essential to make a movement take off.

Moreover, there’s the added bonus of the immediacy generated by social. Look back at how the Arab Spring used mobile to tell their story in real time, without filters, without the media. Mobile wasn’t just an organisational tool but a broadcast opportunity, an awareness platform.

Online and mobile are now almost essential to protest movements. They are shrinking the world and in turn creating a real, meaningful impact. Slacktivism perhaps isn’t as vapid and hollow as once thought.

According to a paper published in August last year scientists have found a faulty protein in ALS patient’s neurons that could be part of what causes the disease. They think that if this is the case, they might be able to fix it. One of the authors of the research says the $220 million of donations made in the wake of the Ice Bucket Challenge were fundamental to this break through.

After the death of Aylan Kurdi, a similarly exponential increase in donations occurred with MOAS receiving a 200% increase in financial aid within 24hours of the tragic photograph hitting headlines. If you look at the narrative surrounding the refugee crisis, this was also where the conversation changed – with support growing from human awareness. That’s why even sharing videos of the refugee cat plays a role. Reminding those who have been desensitised by the media there is humanity underlying the current Syria crisis, it encourages people to see past the figures and stats, the hyperbole and horror, to see a normal family who loved their cat.

Online activism can act as a catalyst. It can act fast. It can bring attention to an issue, raise a platform for a voice that needs one, use the strength of a collective to empower an individual or singular cause.

The other week a friend of mine pointed out that I’m not a girl you’d find at a rally. He was right. I’m not someone that’s likely to end up waving a banner from the roof of Buckingham Palace (although it does sound fun). Call it Athenian but you’re more likely to find me writing about an issue, pointing out flaws and potential solutions, attending events where discussions take place and educating myself, engaging with people on the front line and trying to drum up interest in what they’re doing.

In fact, it was only at university where I really began to pay attention to global issues without others (teachers, parents) guiding me. I started off by clicking, reading, occasionally sharing. The more I learnt, the more I cared. The more I cared, the more I engaged. The more I engaged, the more I found myself becoming part of various narratives, albeit in slow, small way and with a lot of personal development to go.

Does starting as a slacktivist make me less passionate about seeing change in the world or less committed to playing my part to solve the issues I see all around me today? No. And my experience is not an anomaly either. Everyone has to start somewhere.

None of this is to say that we should embrace a ‘slacker’ mentality. It’s not enough to sit and like things and look informed without actually informing ourselves. We do need to remain skeptical of people who talk the talk but have nothing to show for it. Doubters need to keep rallying the slacktivists. To challenge them. If nothing else, your voice might push someone into making an actual donation or finally reading up on that subject or even turn someone from passive to active involvement in a cause.

We are not born naturally determined to change the world. But online activism has the power to inspire and engage and educate. To remind us that we all have the ability to make a difference if we only put our minds to it.

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9 thoughts on “Slacktivism: How powerful is online activism?

  1. I really had no idea how these hashtag appeals, etc. impacted their respective issues until I saw the story about the Ice Bucket Challenge on the news. After someone (I forget who) had disparaged it publicly, the organizers revealed how much it had actually helped. Our national news covered it. Pretty cool! Nice coverage of the topic, Harriet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you found it interesting! It was a bit of a ramble but it’s an issue that means something to me as a writer and (increasingly) activist. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is just such an incredible story though – I remember writing about it at the time and being half skeptical, half excited to see what it could do.

      Liked by 1 person

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