Why ‘slacktivism’ is unlikely to change the world
For almost two weeks last month, the world grappled with a renewed outbreak of violence in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People all around the world were glued to their social media accounts for live updates on the riots, airstrikes, destruction and protests. The events largely divided people into two polarized camps, although some were conflicted, trying to understand what was really going on.
The recent violence was the worst since 2014, but what was different this time was that it played out live on social media. Footage of attacks, evictions and testimonies were livestreamed and brought the conflict directly to our phones through TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. Social media became the actual media for millions around the world and so, in the fight to control the public narrative, the pendulum began to shift.
Despite social media’s power in displaying what happened, it also served as a prime tool for typical so-called “slacktivists.” It is very important to differentiate between activism and slacktivism. Slacktivism is the practice of supporting a political or social cause through social media or online petitions and involves very little effort or commitment. It thrives on Instagram and Twitter, which allow people to “show support” or “advocate” through a hashtag or a “like.” It is most evident when people express their support for a cause by changing their profile picture or by forwarding a message. Slacktivism can also mean that you do in fact support a cause, but do not necessarily engage in making real change happen over a long period.
There are numerous examples of individuals practicing slacktivism in recent years, including regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, the ALS ice bucket challenge and the Me Too movement. That is not to say that these movements did not succeed in achieving real change, but people’s engagement around the world certainly varied in its influence.
Social media has made activism easy and accessible. It is generally low-cost, low-risk and requires very little effort. It is also trendy in the sense that it allows anyone to join and is non-committal. It has an impressive outreach and sometimes succeeds in raising large sums of money. A good example would be the ice bucket challenge, which was launched in 2014 to raise awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The campaign went viral and managed to raise more than $220 million worldwide. Its success was partly due to the massive involvement of celebrities and the fact it was fun to participate in. However, despite its marketing success, the ice bucket challenge was probably an anomaly in terms of its success, and emulating it for other causes is unlikely to yield the same outcome.
While it is vital to raise awareness of various causes, there are very clear limitations to the value and effectiveness of slacktivism, particularly with solving large, complex global issues.
The problem with slacktivism is threefold. Firstly, it reduces real activism to a lazy like or a post on a social media platform when that cause is in the news, before dying out with the next media frenzy. Therefore, its purpose for the majority is to “post” and then go about their day guilt-free, having publicly demonstrated their participation.
In a famous New Yorker article, journalist Malcolm Gladwell argued against those that compare social media revolutions with actual “activism that challenges the status quo.” He maintained that activism on social media cannot compare with real activism, which occurs on the ground. This can be very frustrating for individuals who realize that, ultimately, their participation had no impact on the cause they supported. As a result, they can become more apathetic about global causes generally.
While it is vital to raise awareness of various causes, there are very clear limitations to the value and effectiveness of slacktivism.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
Secondly, slacktivism’s approach is very reductive. Possibly the worst example in recent times was the cringeworthy video of 25 celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” just days into the first pandemic lockdown, while the entire world was struggling with containing the virus. In addition, slacktivism relies heavily on the content posted on social media platforms. Very few individuals invest the time to actually research the cause from reliable sources, and even fewer formulate an original opinion.
The third problem is that it pressures and sometimes bullies others into joining the wave of slacktivism. It can lead to public shaming, the sharing of negative reviews, and sometimes even the spread of false information to influence public opinion. There are numerous recent examples of individuals, business owners and companies that have been bullied into voicing an opinion and making a statement on social media. If they did not, their products, businesses and accounts were threatened with boycotts.
Social media is undoubtedly a very powerful tool for spreading messages, organizing efforts and raising awareness. It is the modern-day delivery channel for news consumption, as was the case with the recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict, when hashtags and the forwarding of live content allowed the rest of the world to see the issue through a new lens. Online activism can succeed when it grows out of social media, just as it did with the Me Too hashtag, when it catalyzed real changes in policy. However, slacktivism in its current form can easily run the risk of oversimplifying complex global issues, before dying out with the next trend.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik