Facebook Thumbs Up AvatarSlacktivism (Otherwise Known as Clicktivism)

Slacktivism /'slaktə,vizəm/ n. Pejorative neologism used to describe actions taken by an individual through digital channels (e.g., liking, sharing, signing e-petitions) as opposed to in person in order to affect change. It is a blend of the words “slacker” and “activism.” Also referred to as clicktivism due to the act of clicking in order to advance a social cause.

It is understandable why radical activists might reject, on first glance, the kinds of engagement conducted online: signing of petitions on Change.org, liking or sharing cause or issue information, hashtagging or retweeting commentary on Twitter. These activities seem to require little investment on the part of the person clicking to spread the word. It might even seem challenging to identify the reciprocity in such activities. However, when we consider the ways in which social media has furthered recent social and political causes, such as Il Popolo Viola and the Arab Spring, particularly in countries where the media is controlled by the government, the value of mass electronic dissemination and circulation becomes apparent. In fact, digital activism looks a lot like its offline counterpart in efforts to impact social change.

While some activist researchers give digital activism a lukewarm reception, acknowledging the benefits of it and the positive impact digital technology has on an individual’s likelihood to participate (Boulianne, 2009; Breuer & Farooq, 2012; Joyce, Howard, & Rosas, 2012), others are fierce critics. Rustin Klafka (2010) said clicktivists are simply clicking to make themselves feel better, while not really caring about the cause because they aren’t taking pains to do any real work associated with change (as cited in Breuer & Farooq, 2012, p. 4). Sam Biddle (2012), author of the blog post “Twitter Doesn’t Make You Martin Luther King,” went so far as to say most digital activists are “fakers, half-assed retweet activists, who ‘support’ Iranian dissent or ‘raise awareness’ about homophobia with the same zeal that we click Like on a video of two cute cats playing with an alligator” (as cited in Breuer & Farooq, 2012, p. 4). Consider also the position of public scholar Malcolm Gladwell, who penned the 2010 The New Yorker piece “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” in which he argued that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required.”

But there is new research showing online social networks do actually influence political expression and behavior. Anita Breuer and Bilal Farooq (2012) surveyed participants in the Ficha Limpa activist campaign against corruption in Brazil in an effort to better understand online and offline behaviors. Though they found that “low-effort online activities” such as social networking service activities “contribute[d] little to increase[d] political participation” (Breuer & Farooq, 2012, p. 2), they did acknowledge that “targeted campaigning by e-advocacy groups has the potential to increase the political engagement of individuals with low levels of political interest and can help to produce the switch from online to offline participation among individuals with high levels of political interest” (Breuer & Farooq, 2012, p. 1). Like the findings from Joyce, Howard, and Rosas (2012), Breuer & Farooq (2012) noted that digital media effectively supplements the activities of those who are already interested or engaged in politics.

Shelley Boulianne's (2009) analysis of the impact of the Internet on engagement acknowledged a positive impact but claimed the impact is quite modest. This study must be weighed in context, though. It analyzed activity from 1995-2005, making the data more than a decade old, so it could hardly take into consideration the activity on social media since the advent of Web 2.0. Additionally, because of the speed at which technology is advancing and evolving, academic work surrounding digital technology is virtually obsolete by the time it’s published. Users adapt and find ways to do online the same kinds of things they were doing offline before, and this reality is even truer in 2015 than 2005.

In fact, the Boulianne (2009) study barely covers the time period of Howard Dean’s Blog for America and misses altogether Obama’s Text Out the Vote campaign, which are considered some of the earliest uber-successful political activism campaigns using new media. Since then, there are too many movements/campaigns to count, but over 1,200 notable, according to the Digital Activism Research Project (Joyce, Howard, & Rosas, 2012).

A more recent and extensive study on political mobilization through online social networks shows tangible results of an online get-out-the-vote type campaign. Researchers at the University of California San Diego (Bond et al., 2012) used the midterm Congressional elections of 2010 to conduct an experiment on Facebook users and political activity. They wanted to understand the degree of influence that online messaging about voting had on a user’s “political self-expression, information seeking, and real-world voting behavior” (Bond et al., 2012, p. 295). The experiment involved placing a message on the top of select users’ newsfeeds reminding them of Election Day and inviting them to click on an “I Voted” button to share this status with their friends. One group (the “social message” group) was also shown pictures of their own Facebook friends who had also clicked on the “I Voted” button, while the other group received only the informational message.

The members of the social message group were more likely to participate in political self-expression and information seeking (which was measured by their clicking on a link to learn about their designated polling place) activities, but most importantly, they were more likely to actually vote (Bond et al., 2012). Though the study emphasized that the “social contagion” is most heavily correlated to close Facebook friends, that is, those friendships deemed to be an online reflection of a close face-to-face relationship, the researchers noted that “even weak ties seem to be relevant to its spread” (Bond et al., 2012, p. 297). This finding silences one of the primary arguments of critics such as Gladwell (2010): that the “weak ties” of social media are not sufficiently motivating for action or change. Ultimately, the study drew data from 61 million Facebook users and was matched against public voting records to verify that a vote was indeed cast. The findings illustrate that “online political mobilization works” (Bond et al., 2012, p. 297); in fact, the online influence matches face-to-face influence noted in previous studies, where “each act of voting on average generates an additional three votes as this behavior spreads throughout the [social] network” (Bond et al., 2012, p. 298).

In another example of the social impact of Facebook activism, Stephanie Vie (2014) discussed the widespread transmission of a cause-based logo in her article “In Defense of ‘Slacktivism’: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook Logo as Digital Activism.” Vie (2014) discussed the modified Human Rights Campaign (HRC) logo (the red square with a pink equal sign in the middle) introduced by the HRC in March of 2013 when California was considering Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage. The HRC asked supporters to make the red square logo their profile image in support of the cause of marriage equality. Although there were countless variations of the meme, some expressing support and some opposition, it was shared 189,000 times and had the reach of tens of millions—appearing 18 million times in the Facebook newsfeed (Vie, 2014). Vie (2014) noted that “the Human Rights Campaign logo is an important example of how even seemingly insignificant moves such as adopting or remixing a logo and displaying it online can serve to combat micro–aggressions” and “help draw attention to societal issues and problems and can result in increased feelings of support for marginalized groups" ("Introduction" section, para. 5).

The power of social influence on behavior cannot be dismissed, and in social networking sites especially, we need to have a good understanding of how to harness that power and use it to increase participation in both online and offline activities. It is also worth remembering that objections to online engagement activities (denoting them as lazy activism) don’t take into consideration the effort or time required in—or degree of passion underlying—the efforts of the organizer, the creator of the image or petition being circulated, or the designer of the Facebook fan page. These are community organizers who have taken up a new, highly participatory form of media to influence or affect change. Because they are doing this work on their terms, using their unique skill set and incorporating technologies and devices they are comfortable with, there is a degree of reciprocity that adds personal value to the activist or advocacy work they are doing. It is this personal investment and value that prompts the activists to enlist support of their friends, both online and offline, and, as we saw in the Bond et al. (2012) study, that type of social influence matters. Additionally, these digital activists are able to see the reach of their efforts in ways that boots-on-the-ground (BoTG) activists might not.

As the methods of direct action begin to encompass new technologies, I would call on critics to reconsider their position on slacktivism and perhaps begin to see the value in the kinds of efforts that are being taken online. If we dismiss the notion of feel-good passive activism—which is not unique to the digital age, by the way—and embrace the parallel efforts and expanded circulation afforded in the online world, we might be able to direct our focus to the education of Americans, particularly young Americans, on how to do this digital advocacy work effectively. Whether this change is quantifiable, like an increase in voting activity, or anecdotal, like exposing millions to a message of support for a cause they might not have otherwise vocalized, it is undeniable that social networking is a platform for awareness raising activities, “and raising awareness is a crucial first step toward significant and lasting change in the off-line world” (Vie, 2014).

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