Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism or slackervism) is a portmanteau of the words slacker and activism. The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes "feel-good" measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them, although this assumption has not been borne out by research.
Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization's efforts, copying and pasting of social network statuses or messages or altering one's personal data or avatar on social network services. Research is beginning to explore the connection between the concept and modern activism/advocacy, as groups are increasingly using social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS describes the term "slacktivist", saying it "posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change".
Use of the term
The term appears to have been coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 at the Cornerstone Festival. The term was meant to shorten the phrase slacker activism, which refers to bottom up activities by young people to affect society on a small, personal scale (such as planting a tree, as opposed to participating in a protest). The term originally had a positive connotation.
Radio host and political commentator Dan Carlin was using the term on his show in the 1990s and may have coined the present day meaning.
Monty Phan, staff writer for Newsday, was an early user of the term in his 2001 article titled, "On the Net, 'Slacktivism'/Do-Gooders Flood In-Boxes".
An early example of using the term "slacktivism" appeared in Barnaby Feder's article in The New York Times called "They Weren't Careful What They Hoped For." Feder quoted anti-scam crusader Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes.com, who described activities such as those listed above. "It's all fed by slacktivism ... the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair".
Another example of the term "Slacktivism" appeared in Evgeny Morozov’s book, "Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" (2011). In it Morozov relates slacktivism to the Colding-Jorgensen experiment: In 2009, a Danish psychologist named Colding Jorgensen created a fictitious Facebook group, as part of his research. On the page, he posted an announcement suggesting that the Copenhagen city authorities would be demolishing the historical Stork Fountain. 125 Facebook members joined Jorgensen’s page within the first day, and the number of fans began to grow at a staggering rate, eventually reaching 27,500. Morozov argues the Colding-Jorgensen experiment reveals a key component of slacktivism: "When communication costs are low, groups can easily spring into action." Clay Shirky also similarly characterized slacktivism as "ridiculously easy group forming."
Criticism of slacktivism
Yet skepticism of slacktivism’s value certainly exists. Particularly, some argue that it entails an underlying assumption that all problems can be seamlessly fixed using social media, and while this may be true for local issues, slacktivism could prove ineffective for solving global predicaments. A 2009 NPR piece by Morozov asked whether "the publicity gains gained through this greater reliance on new media [are] worth the organizational losses that traditional activist entities are likely to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from conventional (and proven) forms of activism."
Criticism of slacktivism often involves the idea that internet activities are ineffective, and/or that they prevent or lessen political participation in real life. However, as many studies on slacktivism relate only to a specific case or campaign, it is difficult to find an exact percentage of slacktivist actions that reach a stated goal. Furthermore, many studies also focus on such activism in democratic or open contexts, whereas the act of publicly liking, RSVPing or adopting an avatar or slogan as one's profile picture can be a defiant act in authoritarian or repressive countries. The Western-centric nature of the critique of slacktivism discounts the impact it can have in authoritarian or repressive contexts. Journalist Courtney C. Radsch argues that even such low level of engagement was an important form of activism for Arab youth before and during the Arab Spring because it was a form of free speech, and could successfully spark mainstream media coverage, such as when a hashtag becomes "a trending topic [it] helps generate media attention, even as it helps organize information. The power of social media to help shape the international news agenda is one of the ways in which they subvert state authority and power." In addition, studies suggest that "fears of Internet activities supplanting real life activity are unsubstantiated," in that they do not cause a negative or positive effect on political participation.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his October 2010 New Yorker article, lambasted those who compare social media "revolutions" with actual activism that challenges the status quo ante. He argued that today's social media campaigns can't compare with activism that takes place on the ground, using the Greensboro sit-ins as an example of what real, high-risk activism looks like. Gladwell further writes:
As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.
A 2011 study looking at college students found only a small positive correlation between those that engage online in politics on Facebook with those that engage off of it. Those who did engage only did so by posting comments and other low forms of political participation, helping to confirm the slacktivism theoretical model.
Defense of slacktivism
In response to Gladwell's criticism of slacktivism in the New Yorker (see above), Mirani argues that he might be right if activism is defined only as sit-ins, taking direct action, and confrontations on the streets. However, if activism is about arousing awareness of people, changing people's minds, and influencing opinions across the world, then 'the revolution will be indeed be tweeted', 'hashtagged', and 'YouTubed'. In a March 2012 Financial Times article, referring to efforts to address the on-going violence related to the Lord's Resistance Army, Matthew Green wrote that the slactivists behind the Kony 2012 video had "achieved more with their 30-minute video than battalions of diplomats, NGO workers and journalists have since the conflict began 26 years ago."
Despite the pejorative connotation of the term, a 2011 correlational study conducted by Georgetown University entitled "The Dynamics of Cause Engagement" determined that so-called slacktivists are indeed "more likely to take meaningful actions." Notably, "slacktivists participate in more than twice as many activities as people who don’t engage in slacktivism, and their actions “have a higher potential to influence others." Cited benefits of slacktivism in achieving clear objectives include creating a secure, low cost, effective means of organizing that is environmentally friendly. These "social champions" have the ability to directly link social media engagement with responsiveness, leveraging their transparent dialogue into economic, social or political action. Going along this mindset is Andrew Leonard, a staff writer at Salon, who published an article on the ethics of smartphones and how we use them. Though the means of producing these products go against ethical human rights standards, Leonard encourages the use of smartphones on the basis that the technology they provide can be utilized as a means of changing the problematic situation of their manufacture. The ability to communicate quickly and on a global scale enables the spread of knowledge, such as the conditions that corporations provide to the workers they employ, and the result their widespread manufacturing has on globalization. Leonard argues that phones and tablets can be effective tools in bringing about change through slacktivism, because they allow us to spread knowledge, donate money, and more effectively speak our opinions on important matters.
Others keep a slightly optimistic outlook on the possibilities of slacktivism while still acknowledging the pitfalls that come with this digital form of protest. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, analyzed the capacity of slacktivism to influence collective group action in a variety of different social movements in a segment of the Berkman Luncheon Series. She acknowledges that digital activism is a great enabler of rising social and political movements, and it is an effective means of enabling differential capacity building for protest. However, she argues that the enhanced ability to rally protest is accompanied by a weakened ability to actually make an impact, as slacktivism can fail to reach the level of protest required in order to bring about change.
The term "clicktivism" is sometimes used to describe activists using social media to organise protests. It allows organizations to quantify their success by keeping track of how many "clicked" on their petition or other call to action. For example, the British group UK Uncut use Twitter and other websites to organise protests and direct action against companies accused of tax avoidance. This varies from slacktivism in that it merely replaces older ways of communicating a protest's existence (telephone, word of mouth, leaflets etc) and does actually involve a real life, physical protest. On the other hand, clicktivism is also sometimes used to describe forms of internet based slacktivism such as signing online petitions or signing and sending form letter emails to politicians or corporate CEOs.
Critics of clicktivism state that this new phenomenon turns social movements to resemble advertising campaigns in which messages are tested, clickthrough rate is recorded, and A/B testing is often done. In order to improve these metrics, messages are reduced to make their "asks easier and actions simpler." This in turn reduces social action to having members that are a list of email addresses, rather than engaged people.
Charity slacktivism can be described as actions in support of a cause that take little effort on the part of the individual. Examples of online charity slacktivism include posting a Facebook status to support a cause, "liking" a charity organization's cause on Facebook, tweeting or retweeting a charity organization's request for support on Twitter, signing Internet petitions, and posting and sharing YouTube videos about a cause. Examples include the Kony 2012 campaign that exploded briefly in social media in March 2012.
The term slacktivism is often used to describe the world's reaction to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The Red Cross managed to raise $5 million in 2 days via text message donations. Social media outlets were used to spread the word about the earthquake. The day after the earthquake, CNN reported that four of Twitter's top topics were related to the Haitian earthquake.
Charity as a by-product of purchasing products
This is the act of purchasing products that highlight support for a particular cause and advertise that a percentage of the cost of the good will go to the cause. In some instances the donated funds are spread across various entities within one foundation, which in theory helps several deserving areas of the cause. Criticism tends to highlight the thin spread of the donation. An example of this is the Product Red campaign, whereby consumers can buy Red-branded variants of commons products, with a proportion of proceeds going towards fighting AIDS.
Slacktivists may also purchase a product from a company because it has a history of donating funds to charity, as a way to second-handedly support a cause. For example, a slacktivist may buy Ben and Jerry's ice cream because its founders invested in the nation’s children, or promoted social and environmental concerns.
Certain forms of slacktivism have political goals in mind, such as gaining support for a presidential campaign, or signing an internet petition that aims to influence governmental action.
The online petition website Change.org claimed it was attacked by Chinese hackers and brought down in April 2011. Change.org claimed the fact that hackers "felt the need to bring down the website must be seen as a testament to Change.org’s fast-growing success and a vindication of one particular petition: A Call for the Release of Ai Weiwei." Ai Weiwei, a noted human rights activist who had been arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011, was released on 22 June 2011 from Beijing, which was deemed as a victory by Change.org of its online campaign and petition demanding Ai's release.
Sympathy slacktivism can be observed on social media networks such as Facebook, where users can like pages to support a cause or show support to people in need. Also common in this type of slacktivism is for users to change their profile pictures to one that shows the user’s peers that they care about the topic.
An example of sympathy slacktivism is the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet’s campaign “Vi Gillar Olika” (literal translation: “We like different”). This campaign was launched against xenophobia and racism, something that was a hot topic in Sweden in 2010. The main icon of the campaign was an open hand with the text “Vi Gillar Olika”, an icon that was earlier used in a campaign against bullying.
Another example was when Facebook users added a Norwegian flag to their pictures after the 2011 Norway attacks in which 77 people were killed. This campaign received attention from the Swedish Moderate Party, who encouraged their supporters to update their profile pictures.
- Armchair warrior
- Armchair revolutionary
- Cause marketing
- Virtual volunteering, about online volunteering
- Activism 2.0
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