It sounds like a contradictio in terminis, like ‘sound of silence’ or ‘sensible Twitter debate’. But ‘slacktivism’, a contraction of ‘activism’ and uh, ‘slacking’, has become a widespread phenomenon that urges us to reflect on the nature of activism and participation.
In this article, we explore what slacktivism means, why it is often criticised, and why it can still be valuable. As the current coronavirus crisis has given rise to new low-effort initiatives that range from innocent to inappropriate, this article has been updated to include more recent and relevant examples of this phenomenon.
Slacktivism: A Formal Introduction
The United Nations defines slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but are not necessarily “engaged or devoted to making a change.” Other frequently used terms are ‘clicktivism’ or ‘arm-chair activism’.
Basically, slacktivism is a way to voice your opinion about a certain cause without taking to the streets or risking your neck. It’s the viral hashtag you’re retweeting. The pink ribbon on your shirt. The rainbow-coloured frame on your Facebook picture. The ‘Save The Turtles’-petition you signed last week.
Of course, we do those things with the best intentions. But is this a valid type of activism? Or is it just a way to appease our conscience without truly having to engage?
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Generally, slacktivism has a questionable reputation. Critics argue that it doesn’t lead to actual, foot-on-the-ground change, and that it oversimplifies complex global problems. Sharing a link or signing a petition is easy, and so is disengaging from the cause 10 seconds later.
Is the realm of social media, where everything seems fleeting, the right place for activism? Micah White, co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, thinks not. He even draws parallel between slacktivism and food from McDonald’s:
“Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. (…) Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”Micah White
We know that our Facebook like won’t actually feed a hungry child. And that chronic diseases don’t take into account how many viral hashtags condemn their existence. In the end, we still have to put our money where our mouth is.
‘Imagine no pandemic’
During the current coronavirus crisis, slacktivism has gained renewed —and not always positive — attention. Merely six days into lockdown, 25 well-known celebrities, led by actress Gal Gadot, released a video montage of themselves covering John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. ‘Imagine no possessions,” they sang from the comfort of their luxurious homes.
In a pandemic that hits poor and vulnerable communities disproportionately hard, this video was considered a tone-deaf message from people in a situation of extreme privilege. What was intended as a message of solidarity and compassion rapidly became a symbol of slacktivism at its worst. The New York Times stated: “On social media, Gadot and her crew were lambasted for bumblingly contributing, well, whatever this is as opposed to money or resources. Their genial naïveté is blinding them to the grossest sin here: the smug self-satisfaction, the hubris of the alleged good deed. The presumption that an empty and profoundly awkward gesture from a passel of celebrities has any meaning whatsoever borders on delusion (…).”
The ‘Imagine’ debacle may have been the worst example of slacktivism during this pandemic, but it was not the most famous one. Since the beginning of lockdown, people have come together on their balconies and doorsteps to clap for the medical staff on the front lines of this crisis. This started out as a heart-warming sign of solidarity, but as the crisis raged on and the clapping continued, it also raised questions.
Criticism arose that a lot of the people clapping for care workers consistently vote for political parties that cut health care funding during election times. It brought to the attention that those who are suddenly deemed ‘essential workers’ have long been underpaid and undervalued. Plus, the narrative of describing our medical workers as ‘heroes’ also sets them up to be martyred: “by cheering martial metaphor without providing protection and payment, we are asking for martyrdom, not heroism—insensible, unnecessary martyrdom, a death caused by the miserliness of capital, the dysfunction of government, the failure of a state so comprehensive it staggers the mind.” The people risking their lives to care for our sick and vulnerable or keep our supermarkets open don’t need an applause: they need funding, protection and compensation.
But it isn’t all bad. During these times of crisis, communities across the globe have shown exceptional resilience and solidarity. Across the world, people are offering each other help in doing groceries, babysitting, picking up medication or walking the dog. While volunteers in Brussels are distributing meals for health care workers, volunteers in Germany have set up a platform that facilitates person-to-person assistance. While these initiatives are more activism than slacktivism, they do show that helping out and getting involved doesn’t always require an enormous effort.
And over the course of the pandemic, pure slacktivism has shown its value as well. Instagram has launched #StayHome and #IStayHomeFor stickers that people can use in their stories. This new feature has helped to highlight the importance of respecting the lockdown guidelines, especially for younger audiences. As Social Media Today states, “Thus far, the available research suggests that COVID-19 is not a major health risk for younger people, but it can be fatal for those in older brackets. So while the majority of Instagram’s user base is under the age of 34, and may not consider COVID-19 to be a significant threat to them personally, by highlighting the extended impacts to other family and friends, it could help to underline the importance of social distancing for all, regardless of your risk level.” If a simple sticker on a social platform can make younger audiences realise the dangers of a deadly virus and simultaneously send a positive message to a key worker they care about, that is slacktivism at its best.
And that’s not the only example we have of slacktivism gone exactly right.
Let’s zoom in on two of the most successful cases of the last few years.
Born as slacktivism: ALS & #BLM
The ALS-challenge, urging people to empty a bucket of ice water over their heads or donate a sum to the cause, took the internet by storm in 2014. Everyone, from famous soccer players and actors to your neighbour’s hairdresser’s cousin was joining the ice bucket challenge. And in the end, the fad didn’t only raise awareness about the disease, it also gathered thousands of dollars that could ultimately make a real-life difference.
Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter-movement was born as a viral hashtag, but the uproar quickly catalysed into offline reality. People took to the streets for protests, and the topic soon dominated the national conversation in the US. After the death of George Floyd, the #BLM movement is more topical than ever and saw a spike in slacktivist initiatives of varying impacts. On #BlackOutTuesday, thousands of companies and individuals shared a black square on their social media feeds to show solidarity with the BLM-movement, which unintentionally drowned out resources and information in the hashtag algorithms. On the other hand, the viral hashtag #AmplifyMelanatedVoices aimed to put Black and coloured voices front and centre in the movement. Social media also played a vital role in raising awareness for petitions and sharing information. It seems that this blend of the online realm with everyday reality is the most important precondition for slacktivism to make an impact.
“If it’s just on social media, then very little will follow from that. But if by seeing things, people are impelled to take action themselves, and they are helped to find out how to take that action themselves, then change can result.”Prof. Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University
In order to inspire true change, we’ll have to drop the ‘slack’ eventually. As the ‘Imagine’ disaster has shown, it also serves us well to acknowledge our privileges when addressing a certain topic. But that doesn’t mean that slacktivism in itself has no value. Instead of viewing it as a replacement for more straightforward types of action, we should see it as a first step.
It can be an easy, shareable way for people to talk about a cause they are passionate about, or to get educated on new topics. After all, isn’t every reasonable voice addressing an urgent topic inherently a good thing? Is limited action not always better than no action at all?
“Dismissing weak ties because they’re not strong would be about as stupid for us as turning down a kid wanting to empty his piggy bank to donate to us because we need more money than he can give. That would be insulting, callous, irresponsible and frankly counterproductive.”Greenpeace activist JulietteH
Besides, slacktivism arguably serves as some kind of ‘gateway drug’ for people who are less inclined to participate in politics or public debate. And the more voices resound on a certain topic, the more solid its democratic value, right?
Is CitizenLab a ‘slacktivist’ platform?
So how does the concept of slacktivism relate to the CitizenLab e-democracy platform? Most of the actions we support could arguably fall under the ‘slacktivism’ category. Signing petitions, voting or sharing ideas are easy and safe actions that are performed online in a couple of clicks, but we recently also launched online citizen workshops on our platform.
Regardless, not all kinds of online participation are created equal.
- Both the relevant community and the topics at hand are clearly outlined. Common slacktivism often aims to influence enormous, overarching problems like famine, war or global warming with seemingly futile actions. In comparison, the conversations held through CitizenLab are much more tangible.
- Communities raise their voices about topics that directly affect them (ref. our 2018 statistics showed that platform users were most likely to talk about mobility and public planning). When the results are clearer and closer to home, it increases the likelihood of online engagement spiralling into real-life action.
- We stimulate a productive interaction between local governments and citizens. Instead of screaming ideas into the void that is the internet, we inspire dialogue between different groups of change-makers on a platform built for that specific purpose. With different parties involved, it’s much easier to achieve and track real-life progress.
But that progress has to start somewhere. And if that’s on social media, there’s nothing very wrong with that.