Updated: Mar 11
In June, during the Sudan blackout crisis, a page called @sudanmealproject went viral on Instagram. The page promised that for every user who reposted their photo and followed their account, they would donate one meal to someone affected by the crisis in Sudan. Their bio promised to donate up to 100,000 meals. The account garnered over 400,000 followers and it seemed that the Instagram story of every person I followed was sharing their message. But an instagram follow has no monetary gain and if an organisation were capable of delivering such an immense amount of aid, why would they withhold it?
Indeed when I went on their page, looked through their story highlight, and for any associated links there was nothing to be found about how they would fulfil their promise. How would they deliver the food, which location, what was the name of the organisation responsible? It became clear that this account that hundreds of thousands of people had used to “do their part” with was nothing but a ploy to leverage a crisis in which human lives were being lost to gain followers and a platform.
What is Slacktivism?
Slacktivism can be defined as supporting a cause by performing simple measures but not being truly engaged or devoted to making a change. It’s also known as flash activism, social media activism and armchair activism. Despite its many names, the actual question of when we’re performing slacktivism as opposed to true activism remains difficult to navigate and so many of us have fallen into the trap of slacktivism in the past.
The vast majority of people, while they may agree with an idea or acknowledge that something is unjust, will not take action to change it. The standard is passivity. In November 2008, a small Facebook group called 'World Aids Day 2008' urged their followers to change their profile pictures to a red ribbon to spread awareness about the HIV epidemic. Almost a quarter of a million supporters changed their profile picture in solidarity. This was arguably one of the first instances of social media activism, or slacktivism. People were able to engage in a cause from the comfort of their own home and act publicly in a way that took them a few seconds and cost them nothing.
There is no single act that can always be called slacktivism. It is what the cause necessitates that determines whether something fits the definition or not. Online activism does play a part in the political process and has the ability to garner mass attention in one of the fastest ways possible, but only if this awareness can then be harnessed into actionable goals that have been set by the organisers of a movement. The goal of activism is social change. This is the real key to grassroots social change which requires flexibility on how the engagement occurs. The usefulness of more “comfortable” forms of protest lies in the fact that they engage people who would otherwise have done nothing.
Why Should We Care?
Since activism seeks to change the status quo, slacktivism generates noise and can be complicit in silencing true activism. This noise can give the impression of successful change without necessarily delivering tangible results. Sharing content online is an incredible way to amplify voices that go unheard, but when these calls to action are made without practical and sustainable methods, it adds to the white noise and reduces the legitimacy of those championing true change.
Also, dangerously, it allows people to capitalise on the facade of pro-activity while actually doing very little or nothing at all to make a tangible difference. This is not to say that everyone partaking in slacktivism is unmotivated or unwilling to act; the issue can often lie in a misunderstanding of the most impactful actions in initiating change. Social media activism has the potential to win elections across the world but public spectacles alone will not force elected representatives to do anything. Slacktivism can mobilise people and create opportunities for reform.
Does Slacktivism Play a Role in Affecting Genuine Change?
Condemnation of acts of slacktivism can foster a righteous mentality of “if you’re not doing enough, you’re not doing anything at all,” which can dissuade small-step people from decades of potential involvement. We need this noise. Slacktivism plays a role in affecting genuine change because it can be a show of solidarity as well as spreading awareness that assists in making an impact.
Turning your profile picture a certain colour could be seen as a slacktivist trend if there is no further action after this flood of social media activism. For example, the move for people to change their profile picture blue for Sudan was hugely impactful because the nature of the crisis in Sudan was in part an internet blackout, orchestrated in an effort to prevent the spread of information.
So is the noise that slacktivism generates effective? The Black Lives Matter movement was able to mobilise people all over the world and is credited as being one of the most effective and influential activist campaigns. Its momentum was gained by people sharing videos, images and information of the police brutality against black Americans online. This kind of abuse of power thrives when it is not questioned or brought to light, so the act of spreading it online was hugely impactful.
Similarly, the online activism involved in the Me Too movement cannot be categorised as slacktivism. The sacrifice of people sharing their personal stories of sexual assault and harassment propelled change that reverberated around the world and set new standards for conduct in many industries. For the Climate March, spreading awareness online was imperative to ensuring the commitment of more than four million people globally to the protests two weeks ago. Although, the fact that the protestors themselves stand to be affected by the change in climate needs to be considered in how people were mobilised.
There are so many variables in each of these movements that need to be considered in understanding exactly how the otherwise would-be instances of slacktivism mentioned have been skill-fully harnessed by online activists to affected massive change, often on a global scale. It is clear that every cause differs depending on what the desired outcome calls for. Activism that may be considered unproductive in one instance, feeds the fire in another.
How Can You Turn Your Slacktivism into True Activism?
There are several steps every person can take to ensure that when they act in support of a cause, they are doing so in a way that aids actual change. The first step in turning our slacktivism into true activism is understanding that every person, including ourselves, has their limitations, and not to let our potential past involvement in slacktivism dissuade us from working to make genuine change in our world.
The second step is to be honest with ourselves about our intentions. Slacktivist acts of re-sharing activist content online can often allow a person to walk away from a cause with a clear conscience. Ask yourself if, in performing this act, you seek to absolve yourself of any further responsibility towards the cause and if so, hold yourself accountable.
The third step in ensuring there are actual steps to follow. These are steps that an individual can take, which, with the power of numbers can lead to such high-level change as putting forth candidates and winning elections. This is the greatest lesson Micah White learned from his perceived failure of the Occupy Wall Street protest that he co-founded and recommends setting actionable goals to track how a campaign will reach its desired outcome.
Ultimately, the real meat of the movement and the push behind the change comes from rallying the community, from hours of calls to your local MP, petitioning to the right people, donating money to credible sources and from discussions with your friends and family. You’ll notice that what all these acts have in common are some element of sacrifice, whether it be your time, effort, money or plans. It’s important to recognise that online activism, or small-step activism, is a good start, but just that - a start.
Lead Editor: Tahmina R.
Bibliography UNAIDS Outlook report. (2010). Geneva: World Health Organization. ABC News. (2019). Activism is broken: Here's how we fix it. [online] Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-25/activism-is-broken-heres-how-we-fix-it/9077372 [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019]. The Conversation. (2019). 'Slacktivism' that works: 'Small changes' matter. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/slacktivism-that-works-small-changes-matter-69271 [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019]. The Huffington Post. (2016), Challenging “slacktivism”: activism on social media is not enough. [online] Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/challenging-slacktivism-activism-on-social-media_b_5817c2dbe4b09b190529c8ae [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].