Have you heard of “Facebook slacktivism”? It’s a term invented a few years ago referring to Facebook users who consider themselves socially aware and politically active, but whose contributions to any given social movement are limited to supportive but vague, intangible efforts, such as a “Like” on a page about feeding the homeless with no actual action required. I first noticed this trend on my own newsfeed in 2012, when an initiative to raise awareness of child abuse was mobilizing users to change their profile pictures to their favorite animated character. Confused? I was too. On the one hand, it’s never a bad thing to raise awareness of any social problem, like child abuse, racism, sexism, and various other isms. But in reality, or at least in this particular case, users changing their profile pictures was the entire initiative. Sure, it makes everyone’s feeds cuter and more vibrant, but actually does very little to address a problem as widespread and insidious as child abuse, and in the process trivializes it. So, the conversation that resulted from the initiative wasn’t so much about bringing awareness to child abuse but instead about how inane the initiative was. So, then, does “slacktivism” have any value?
I suppose my own opinion on the subject is that it does… kind of. Consider the rise of trans rights in North America, for instance. Although the movement has been around for a long time, there have been noticeable leaps made in the last five years or so, with many trans public figures emerging as legitimate inspirational figures: Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono, among others. Additionally, we saw a rise in trans visibility on mainstream shows like Glee, Orange is the New Black, Drop Dead Diva, etc. In particular, Cox and Jenner have benefited tremendously from social media – both maintain active presences online, with Cox’s Facebook page attracting over 900k likes, while Jenner’s has nearly double that. Jenner saw a significant boon to her public visibility and acceptance following the release of Vanity Fair cover interview, which was the most shared item on Facebook for the week of June 28, 2015, and her subsequent Twitter account reached one million followers quicker than American President Barrack Obama’s did. Both women have managed to expand social media boons into legitimate media attention and in the process became positive role models for their community, with a significant push from an online community growing increasingly insistent on equal rights and social justice activism. Users passively shared articles, openly discussing the trans rights movement in ways that had not been seen before, and contributed significantly in making the issue commonplace and negating its former taboo status.It almost seemed like, “What’s the big deal about this?” Of course, that’s a pat way of describing a complex situation, but it’s an encouraging sign of changing times that an entire generation greeted Jenner’s transition with a hearty “Good for her!” and then moved on.
For a different side of the coin, however, look no further than the KONY 2012 media campaign. Despite a running length of nearly half an hour, the now-famous KONY video discussing the leader of a Ugandan guerrilla group struck a chord with users online, if only temporarily. Despite its relative length, the video reached nearly 100 million views within a matter of only days, with users inundating Facebook and Twitter by sharing it and openly discussing an issue they had previously been unfamiliar with. I even remember friends of mine who are politically and socially disinterested having impressively informed opinions about it. Yet what was missing from the movement was actually what the video actively encouraged viewers to do: Post pictures of Joseph Kony in the real world to continuously raise awareness, hoping to inspire real-world change. There was very little that actually physically done, and awareness did not translate to actual activism. It began on social media, became a news item literally overnight, and disappeared almost as quickly.
However, where social media slacktivism is at its most useful is in terms of beginning a conversation on an issue that has yet to attract traditional media attention, and leading to actual, tangible benefits. For instance, in 2013 the UN World Food Programme teamed up with Royal DSM to raise awareness about hunger and potential solutions: For every “Like” that the WFP receives on its Facebook page, Royal DSM donates towards the charity. Adapting the passivity of Facebook slacktivism into a fundraising opportunity is a direct way to ensure real-world change, while simultaneously raising awareness of the issue. In the end, although many people dismiss social media as trivial, narcissistic white noise, it has actually managed to alter the way an issue can be discussed and led to real-world change… although, to do so, a campaign should be more robust than, say, changing your profile picture to a cartoon character…
What about you? Have you been a Facebook slacktivist?