Slacktivism: What It Is And Why It Matters

Digitally Rich - Slacktivism

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Slacktivism, a mashup of the words slacker and activism, was first used in the 1990s—debate continues over who coined the term—to describe the positive yet small scale activities people perform for the betterment of society. Planting a tree to offset carbon emissions versus protesting at the front doors of Parliament House against the use of fossil fuels is an example of slacktivism under this original definition.

Over time, however, the term has taken on a more negative connotation as the internet, and social media in particular, offers increasingly easier ways for people to participate in “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact”.[1] Indeed, the definition given to the term by the Oxford Dictionary when it was included in 2014 hints at this possible downside of social media.[2] I’ll briefly cover two types of slacktivism, political and charity, and offer an example for each.

Political Slacktivism

Political groups are using social media to engage, influence, and recruit users, giving them a greater number of resources to drum up support for their cause and benefit from slacktivist behaviour.[3]

Political Slacktivism Example:

The 2014 Scottish referendum gave the people of Scotland a chance to decide whether to end the 300-year-old Treaty of Union and become an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom.

Facebook analysed millions of likes, posts, and comments on its platform for five weeks leading up to the vote and found that the pro-independence party Yes Scotland had a slight lead over their pro-union rivals Better Together in terms of overall interactions and user engagement. However, a much wider gap appeared on micro-blogging site Twitter, where almost 90% of conversations regarding the referendum focussed on the Yes vote. PR company Weber Shandwick argued that because Yes Scotland approached social media with a strong, consistent strategy compared to Better Together, they were able to better influence voting decision among young, tech-savvy voters.[5]

“#YesScotland is too dependent on online ‘Slacktivism’. Get out into the streets” @MrEwanMorrison

However, after votes were tallied, the result was a narrow loss for the Yes Scotland; 44.7% versus 55.3%. Some journalists blame Yes Scotland’s focus on social media and the youth vote—a slacktivist generation too young to understand the difference between posting on social media and voting for independence[5]—compared to Better Together’s strategy to control traditional media outlets and reach a much wider voter demographic.[6]

During the campaign, Twitter user @MrEwanMorrison highlighted Yes Scotland’s need for a larger physical presence with this tweet, “#YesScotland is too dependent on online ‘Slacktivism’. Get out into the streets”.[7]

Charity Slacktivism

Social media platforms present new opportunities for charities to reach more people, increase awareness, and encourage donations. In a study of donors to nonprofits on Facebook, Saxton and Wang found that Facebook users make small contributions, donate impulsively based on the perceived quality of a charity’s online presence, and are more likely to donate to charities related to health.[8]

Charity Slacktivism Example:

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge aimed to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and raise donations to help find a cure. The disease gradually leads sufferers to complete paralysis, while leaving their mental faculties fully intact. The challenge dared participants to dump a bucket of ice water onto their heads, who then nominated others to complete the challenge within 24 hours or forfeit and make a donation of $10 to the ALS Association.

For supporters, the campaign was a success. It got a lot of people talking and the ALS Association raised $15.6 million, a nine-fold boost in donations that it would normally receive over the same period.[9]

For critics, the campaign lost its message. Most videos failed to describe the disease, why ALS needs to raise funds and what those funds would be used for, which weakened the long-term impact of the campaign. The nature of the challenge appealed to a slacktivist’s sense of contribution to a worthy cause by simply posting a video or tweeting a hashtag.[10]

The debate over the triviality or value of slacktivism has fuelled a war of words between critics and supporters.

The Triviality of Slacktivism

Critics of slacktivism, including Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell, have questioned the influence of political discourse on social network sites. Gladwell explains that while social media makes it easier for people to connect with like-minded others and share views without taking any real risks, those ties are weak, and their messages fail to influence any worthwhile results. On the other hand, real activists take courage from strong connections with friends and others within the group to risk injury or punishment in support of the movement and make a meaningful impact.[11] McCafferty sums up this view by stating that “activism has always been and will always be about people. Specifically, people who show up in person”.[12]

Digital activism on social media has led to the creation of another term, clicktivism, meaning activism that requires nothing more than a click of the mouse. The ease of supporting a movement can create the illusion that people are playing a greater role than they actually are and this could hold those people back from being more physically active in support of the cause.[13]

“Activism has always been and will always be about people. Specifically, people who show up in person” McCafferty (2011)

In the political realm, Fuchs does not believe social media can spark riots and anti-government uprising. Rather, Fuchs argues that digital activism simply offers the potential for enhancing communication in times of political upheaval.[14]

The Value of Slacktivism

Proponents of slacktivism praise the speed, simplicity, and low-cost of social media to spread messages and increase mobilisation compared to using traditional methods.[3] According to Christensen, activist groups can now use social media to encourage individuals that perhaps would not have participated previously to support their cause in the physical realm.[15] Additionally, there is nothing to suggest that a ‘clicktivist’ has not marched on the streets for their cause in addition to giving their support online.

Can Slacktivism Lead to Activism? Huffington Post

Papacharissi argues that the increased democratising function of social media has given individuals a greater opportunity and more flexibility to express their support for their cause. Moreover, social media platforms represent the modern form of political activism; comparable to movements observed offline.[16] Shirky is sympathetic to the arguments against slacktivism yet advances the notion that social media leads to more democracy, which leads to more freedom; and because of this freedom, social media is an effective tool for positive change.[17]

So, is there a Point?

Let’s answer this question with a side by side comparison of the pros and cons of slacktivism:

Pros

  • Easy and fast to Like and share
  • It doesn’t really cost anything
  • Stirs slacktivists to perform greater acts in the future
  • Stirs others to donate time and money
  • It never hurts a cause

Cons

  • It’s too easy
  • Ties between people in the movement are weak
  • Creates the illusion of helping a cause
  • It doesn’t help that much

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the pros and cons of slacktivism is its ability to cause activism; a definite pro. For the slacktivist (or clicktivist), a study on Facebook found that users will often comply with subsequent acts that carry greater weight offline after initially performing smaller acts identified as clicktivism.[18] For the people influenced by the slacktivist’s actions, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc., well they may very well be in a position to donate their time and/or money to a cause they previously were ignorant of or indifferent to; just think what $15.6 million means to the ALS Association. And for that reason, slacktivism has a point and a place in today’s digital world.

References

1. Morozov, E. (May 19, 2009). Foreign Policy: Brave New World Of Slacktivism. Npr.org

2. Oxford Dictionaries, (November 18, 2014). The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014: runners-up. Blog.oxforddictionaries.com

3. Obar, J. A. (2014). Adding Slacktivism to the Activist’s Toolkit: Advocacy Group Perceptions of the Benefits and Drawbacks of Slacktivism. Available at SSRN 2387805.

4. Cookson, R. (September 16, 2014). Scottish independence: Referendum White Paper unveiled. Bbc.com

5. MacDougall, A. (September 17, 2014). Scotland referendum: Will slacktivists help secession succeed? Cbc.ca

6. Billinge, S. (September 23, 2014). Infographic: the Scottish referendum in online stats. Wallblog.co.uk

7. Morrison, E. (August 28, 2014). Ewan Morrison. Twitter.com

8. Saxton, G. D., & Wang, L. (2014). The social network effect: The determinants of giving through social media. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(5), 850-868.

9. Herper, M. (August 19, 2014). Think The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Stupid? You’re Wrong. Forbes.com

10. Kosinski, B. (July 8, 2014). #IceBucketChallenge: Why You’re Not Really Helping. Huffingtonpost.com

11. Gladwell, M. (October 4, 2010). Small Change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Newyorker.com

12. McCafferty, D. (2011). Activism vs. slacktivism. Communications Of The ACM, 54(12), 17-19. doi:10.1145/2043174.2043182

13. Harlow, S., & Guo, L. (2014). Will the revolution be tweeted or facebooked? using digital communication tools in immigrant activism. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 19(3), 463-478. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12062

14. Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: A critical introduction. Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.

15. Christensen, H. S. (February 7, 2011). Political activities on the internet: slacktivism or political participation by other means?Firstmonday.org

16. Papacharissi, Z. (2010). A private sphere: Democracy in a digital age. Cambridge: Polity.

17. Shirky, C. (February 27, 2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreignaffairs.com

18. Kristofferson, K., White, K., & Peloza, J. (2014). The nature of slacktivism: How the social observability of an initial act of token support affects subsequent prosocial action. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(6), 1149-1166. doi:10.1086/674137

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