SLACKTIVISM: Does it make a difference?

So there’s this new(ish) thing. It’s called slacktivism. It’s like real activism but you get to do it from a computer inside your house instead of going outside in order to go places, like protest sites or fundraisers. Have you ever changed your profile picture in solidarity for the victims of a recent natural disaster (#PrayforJapan) or terrorist attach (#PrayForParis) or participated in a viral video campaign where you dumped a bunch of ice on your head (#ALSicebucketchallenge)? If so, then you’re a slacktivist!

With the advent of other newish things, such as “social media” and the “internet“, forms of communication and sources of information have become increasingly digitized. The internet is where young people spend the majority of their time today and is now a platform to form cultural memes. With this paradigm shift, a question arises: are digital social movements any less powerful than the traditional act of taking to the streets?

Urban Dictionary’s completely unbiased definition of slacktivism is: “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem”

Before I get into the meat of this post, I’ll state right away that I think slacktivism is overall good, needed, and effective. So try not to be confused when I spend most of this post talking about it’s shortcomings. Or…when I confess that I’ve never changed my profile picture, or shared a viral video, dumped a bucket of ice on my head, or participated in any slacktivising in general (is that the verb form of slacktivism? Probably.).

Some have criticized slacktivism because it has no real risk unlike real activism. It is a way to pat yourself on the back for pretty much doing nothing. Len Kendall writes that:

“Slacktivism isn’t neccessarily bad, but it can act as a placebo that misdirects people from tangible action…The minimum investment for doing good in the world today has become low. Really low. It’s as easy as hitting a “like” button or changing your profile picture. In my mind, that’s unacceptably low…How much money would have been donated, or how many hours would have been offered of volunteer time, had the minimum barrier of entry to taking action been higher?”

May Daouk suggest that slacktivists “are narcissists and self-promoters because they flaunt their membership in an activist group without putting any kind of effort.”

CNN published an interesting article by John Sutter called “In Praise Of Slacktivism” which considers slacktivism’s value by analyzing the #enditmovement, where by people tape a red X on their hands and post a picture online to help combat modern day slavery. Sutter considers critics statements that the #enditmovement is offensive for making people think participating in the red x campaign can free slaves. The author disputes this when he writes

“Slapping a red “X” on your hand and uploading a photo of it to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #enditmovement (as tens of thousands have done) can help end slavery. It’s not going to happen right away, of course. But it’s the first step.”

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A typical “Red X” instagram shot.

Enditmovement.com echoes the same sentiment on it’s website “Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern-day slavery, but nothing will EVER happen until we are.”

Like anything else slacktivism has its pros and cons, but I don’t think it has very high potential to be dangerous. However, I think abrasive cynicism towards it can be unnecessarily disruptive to the potential good it could bring about.

KONY 2012 is an interesting example. The instigator of the movement was Invisible Children, an activist group that got its start with a dvd documentary release in 2006 by the same name. This organization had gained significant traction in raising awareness and igniting activist activity, even before the Viral KONY 2012 video. Between 2006 and 2012, when social media was still getting settled as a staple in our lives, Invisible Children raised awareness about abducted children who were forced into combat in a variety of ways, most notably through community screenings of their various documentaries. I first became aware of Kony’s resume at a screening at Joe’s Place in Moose Jaw, a youth drop-centre I was volunteering at back in 2007. Like many others I was affected by the images I saw, and the stories I heard. Later, when I was working at a church in Winnipeg as Youth Director, I would host similar screenings and facilitate discussions with my youth kids about the issues with the hopes of fostering empathy and maybe even move them to action. Some youth would go on to advocate for the films to be screened at their schools. So yeah, you could say that, like any good hipster, I was into Kony before it was cool.

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Cover Art for IC’s first documentary, one that I would host screenings for. About 5 more movies would follow.

So how does this story end? Well, Invisible Children is now defunct. There will be no more movies, no more nation wide activist demonstrations, no more t-shirt/bracelet fundraisers. What brought Invisible children to it’s end? KONY 2012 did. Or rather, the critical response to it did. With more than 100 million views in its first week, KONY 2012 succeeded in bringing the issues of LRA activity to the spotlight, but also drew the attention of critics, cynics, and nay-sayers. Many commentators criticized the organization’s presentation for oversimplifying the wildly complex nature of Uganda’s political distress. Some accused the organization of subliminal messaging in their videos. Others suggested that Invisible Children was using a crises to push a pro-war agenda, while others claimed that much of the footage used in KONY 2012 was nearly a decade old, and that the crises in Uganda that IC was raising awareness for had already been resolved. Oh yeah, and there was also the incident where IC founder Jason Russel had a very public melt down where he was filmed running around the streets of san diego naked. Needless to say IC had their PR work cut out for them.

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“One Thing We Can All Agree On”. Apparently not.

In short the KONY 2012 did everything right and everything wrong all at once. They masterfully executed a slacktivist viral campaign like no had before, and created the blueprint that many viral campaigns continue to follow. Zoe Fox from Mashable argues that “KONY 2012 explicitly states that its goal is to make Joseph Kony famous, because 99% of the world doesn’t (or didn’t) know who he is — and it has been darn successful at doing just that”.

What went wrong was that this campaign wasn’t confusion proof, so when commentators started making the various claims listed above, people were turned off. Many critics contradicted not only IC on the facts but each other as well. This left slacktivists feeling like they didn’t actually know what was going on in Uganda anymore. They either didn’t know how, or didn’t care to do their own research to find out the facts. This is an occupational hazard of slacktivism. It appeals to people who can’t or won’t find the truth for themselves, so for them it comes down to trust. Once that’s gone, so is their involvement.

KONY 2012 proved once and for all that the saying “any publicity is good publicity” is not exactly true. Mired in controversy, the organization which was financially healthy before it’s skyrocket to fame was now contending with a deflated donor base. It no longer had the funds to keep running all of its programs. In December 2014, Invisible Children posted a final video announcing they were restructuring. This meant they were shutting down their American operations, which raised awareness, made the movies, and enlisted activists, in order to sustain their african operations a little longer. The video petitioned viewers to donate to what IC was calling their “finishing fund,” indicating that they were phasing themselves out.

I’m sure some of the the criticism directed towards KONY 2012 was valid, and maybe Invisible Children shot themselves in the foot by inadvertently turning the Uganda crises into a pop-culture icon. The way I see it, IC’s employment of slacktivism was not only cause of their success, but their demise. Not because the quality of activism was lowered (as many claim is a consequence of slacktivism), but because wide-spread awareness is a double edged sword that usually brings a multitude of devil’s advocates with it. This is actually a good thing, and it is important to be critical. But I can’t help but feel that it is a shame that an organization that was both bringing practical relief to the ground in Africa, and also skillfully igniting a passion for activism in thousands of college students across the States, no longer has the capacity to do so.

Even though I’m sure IC made mistakes (did they really think military action against Kony would stabilize Uganda?), I’m sure there is no other organization who has the zeal, vision, and capacity to affect change the way IC did before KONY 2012. The LRA was on the United States list of active terrorist organizations before the work of Invisible Children began, and in 2007 it was believed that they were 3,000 men strong. Now, the LRA’s status is listed as no longer active, and in 2013 it was believed that their numbers had fallen to less than 200 men. Say what you will about IC’s tendency to oversimplify the issues, but the fact that this change occurred during their tenure is evidence that what they did mattered.

If trust functions as an essential pillar of Slacktivism , how do we ensure that trust is not so easily disheartened in the midst of confusion brought by critique?

“If you want to truly be informed of what’s happening in the world, you need to look at information from multiple sources and form your own opinion. That includes what you see on social media. So in a way we need Slacktivists, because without them we would have less need to research information and possess the awareness we claim to want to raise.” –Adrian Shuter

One of the strangest arguments against Invisible Children’s work arose out of a concept called Competitive Slacktivism. Shuter describes Competitive Slacktivists as “those who try to one-up people and shame them for trying to take an interest in what’s happening in the world.” We saw this a lot when the #prayforparis hashtag was trending and people were putting their profile pictures through the french flag filter. Critics began posting about the attacks in Beirut, not to raise awareness of it but to shame those who have posted feelings of solidarity with the people of France. Likewise, when IC began raising awareness of the LRA’s warlord, people were quick to point out how many more deaths were caused by the Ugandan government, or that there were other, more sinister genocides going on that we should be talking about. But tragedy isn’t a competition.In 2003 the founders of IC took a trip to Uganda, encountered a injustice and decided to do something about it. So what if this particular genocide wasn’t the biggest or worst one? It was the one in front of them, and the one they felt they had within their reach to change.

This brings me back to the good side of slacktivism. It represents the ability to recognize what is in-front of you, and do something about it. Not only does it bypass barriers to starting a movement, but research shows that people who take such minimal actions online are more likely to donate money,  raise awareness in their own social circles, and help change societal perceptions of activism. But movement founders need to be vigilant and clear in its messaging, or else the trust of slacktivists will be food for critics and trolls. They need to be transparent about where they are getting their information, and support their movement with research and facts that are not coming from their own organization. And lastly, they need to encourage participants to learn more for themselves, and give them the resources to do so.

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