SLACKTIVISM – should we feel disparaged by the current state of social media activism?

By Eleanor McKelvey, National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

Slacktivism - a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, without an accompanying lack of willingness to devote a significant effort to enact meaningful change.

                Kristofferson, White and Peloza (2013)

From articles claiming that “Activism is broken” to those that have pronounced “The Downfall of Millennials” - over the past few years, social media users have found themselves increasingly chastised for slacktivism. Critics claim that most people’s main engagement with social, political or environmental causes these days is limited to “microengagement” online (liking pages, sharing information, using hashtags, etc). Whilst the term slacktivism might make for a neat portmanteau, is it fair to brand microengagement with activism online as negligent or even worthless?

Writing for HuffPost , contributor and communications student Charlotte Robinson expressed her frustration with microengagement as a form on slacktivism:

“When we ‘retweet’, when we ‘hashtag’, when we ‘share’, we allow ourselves to feel more moral. We feel like we are good people because we have shown a level of awareness. But don’t we, in fact, become guiltier of perpetuating social injustice once aware? Our inaction upon awareness makes us implicit in a form of systematic oppression”.

Whilst it is true that oppressive power structures are maintained by adherence; low-effort engagement with causes should not necessarily be conflated with inaction. When calls to action are low-effort, social/political/environmental causes can more easily entice a large volume of engagement. This emphasis on large-volumes of microengagement as a strategy for activism is not unique to the online world - charities have been asking us to buy pins for decades, and petitioners have ringing doorbells for centuries. The ease of “sharing” on social media has, if anything, only made the high-volume low-effort strategy more efficient. For example, in 2015, 172 000 Australians signed an online petition which resulted in a melanoma drug becoming available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Similarly, as a result of thousands of people sharing their stories about sexual assault using #MeToo, we have seen the manifestation of concreteprogress - from the imprisonment of abusers to new legislature being drawn up in the US congress.

In the case of #MeToo, however, the use of a hashtag was far from a “token gesture”. Sexual assault survivors put themselves at risk of trolling, gaslighting and victim-blaming by sharing their stories publicly. Furthermore, from an emotional point of view, public admissions of trauma or displays of vulnerability are certainly not “cheap”.

It seems ridiculous, therefore, to brand the growth of online activism as a rise in slacktivism. High-volume low-effort is not a new strategy for activism, and it is not rendered inferior when transplanted into the online realm. Whilst it goes without saying that there are plenty of social causes which cannot progress on shares/likes alone (e.g. for charities, raising money and recruiting volunteers is tantamount), recruiting large numbers of people to show solidarity via microenagement is a tried and tested method of activism.

Online microengagement can also synergise nicely with tangible/physical activism efforts. Talking to the ABC, New York University Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that, whilst the survival of the Black Lives Matter movement has depended upon continued offline protests, the perpetuation of the hashtag on social media has been vital for keeping the movement in the public and political eye.

Furthermore, slacktivism has value because it can provide individuals with a gentle introduction into offline activism. Following a meta-analysis of available data, researcher Dr. Shelley Boulianne demonstrated strong evidence for a positive correlation between people’s use of social media and “participation in civic and political life”.  

The researchers did point out, however, that the sustainability of this trend isn’t clear. In other words, as our social media feeds continue to fill up with more information about social causes and calls-to-action, we are at risk of becoming desensitised or burnt out.

Counsellors like Dr Stephanie Sarkis have reported a rise in the number of clients coming to them with anxiety, depression and/or vicarious traumatization as a result of all the information about social and environmental issues reaching them via social media. As friends/followers share information with us about activism/charitable causes, it can amass to an information inundation. It can be stressful to see information piling up in our social media feeds; reminding us that there are more causes we care about than we have the time or energy to act upon.

Experts and academics propose “solutions” to the stress like joining protestors on the streets, donating more money to causes, or volunteering for grassroots organisations. The problem is that these sorts of actions are not universally accessible. They require spare money or time – luxuries not afforded to all. Furthermore, in a recent Instagram post, disability activist Mia Mingus asked her followers to consider that physical activist spaces are not always accessible to disabled people; “There is value in all of the different ways we are able to contribute to the work of liberation,” she says.

Understandably, it can be frustrating to see others only engage superficially with those social justice causes we care deeply about. Nonetheless, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the degree of personal sacrifice a person makes to their activism will be proportional to their success in furthering the cause. As individuals, the best we can do is make a conscious effort to evaluate our activism, and think about how we can most efficiently channel our resources towards worthy causes.