Saturday, June 7, 2014

How to be a slacktivist or an online activist

4 part series concerning Online Activism

-Part 1
 Online activism in a nutshell

-Andrew Gray

You could argue, that activism is as old as the human race itself. The way individuals chose to spread a message to those around them, has largely remained unchanged.  Messages, signs, posters, rallies were all created by hand or carried out in person by the activist.  

Enter the dawn of the Internet and more importantly, social media.  A very unique, easy and some times, powerful way to communicate, none can dispute that social media and the Internet has connected billions.  Now the very traits that make the Internet so powerful, are also the centre of criticism in how they effect activism.

 Campaigns like #Kony2012#Bringbackourgirls, #YesAllWomen , Stop shark culling, tweeting, liking pages, donating, even changing your profile picture to support a cause all fall under the umbrella of online activism, or as some call it, "slacktivism". There is even an online activism, against online activism called "snarktivism".  

Campaigns fill our news feeds, inboxes and phones with requests from family and friends, urging us to support causes we have never heard of.  We take these limelight issues at face value and make quick decisions based on how we feel in the moment, but do we really understand the lasting impact?  

This process takes no more than a couple of minutes.  All you have to do, is send a tweet, or share/like a page and you can stop a bad man on the other side of the world, even save a forest from deforestation.

Due to how easy it is to show your support and how little effort is needed to actually support the cause, a detachment of the consequences from the action occur. Spurred on by an overwhelming sense of righteousness that you feel in the "heat" of the moment, you suddenly make a massive difference with the click of a button...or did you? 

Online activism works, but not always like you imagined

There is no doubt in my mind, that there can be strong positive effects when we get involved online, but it can also be ineffectual.  In some cases, even causing more harm than good, as campaigns fail to target the underlying issues that brought what we see to the spot light. 

Outlined in this article, and this article, and this one too, are examples of different issues that were ignored when some of their corresponding campaigns surfaced to our attention.

Still all these articles prove one thing.  Online activism often succeeds in bringing important issues to our attention.  So why, in some cases, is the outcome not what we envisioned?  Probably because our aim is off when directing our time and energy.

I feel it is not only necessary to inform you that online activism works, but feel it is equally important to stress the need for people to be efficient, and knowledgeable when it comes to online activism.  Re-tweeting without knowing or understanding the message you're passing off is like being a lemming. You don't want to be a lemming do you?

Your voice, no matter the medium, makes an impact and if you're not careful, it might not make the one you intended. 

For the first part of this four-part series, I’m going to give you an overall breakdown of online activism. What it is, the concerns, different tools of an online activist and some quick tips.

What is "Slacktivism"?

Slacktivism or slacker activism, was a term coined to describe micro activism/passive activism. You’ve got it, small activism, or smaller forms of activism that didn't need much of an energy commitment like bumper car stickers, even planting a tree.  It was actually meant in a positive manner.

In today’s context, it is used with a negative connotation towards people who only get involved if it's easy, gives them some attention, and/or because it makes them feel better about themselves.  It has fast become the go-to word to describe all forms of online activism.

With the birth of the Internet, so much has become easier, in some cases a lot easier than we realise.  Ordering your groceries, earning money, communicating with others, educating, even backing the militarisation of Africa, can all be done by you, the Internet user, with the click of a mouse or a tweet.  

The concerns of slacktivism critics are outlined by Henrik Serup Christensen, 2011 in a 
paper he published on "Political Activities on the Internet", and include:

  • "Slacktivism damages actual activism", or progress towards any real and tangible outcome. A concern also expressed by this blog.  
  • Activists, who once concentrated on off line forms of activism like going to rallies or to town hall will "regress" to the much easier form of activism online because it's...well...easier." 
  •  "Slacktivism (when it refers to all forms of online activism) doesn't achieve anything."  

Despite these concerns, even slacktivism has its merits. After all, bad publicity is still publicity and can still raise awareness.  Furthermore, its been shown in multiple studies that these concerns are in fact, wrong, and the reality is closer to the opposite. I'm not entirely certain if online activism is to blame for oversimplifying issues, or if the campaign manager should be to blame.  Equally the activist could be to blame.

Is all online activism, slacktivism? 

First, I'm going to acknowledge that there is undoubtedly a category of people out there who are, in fact, slacktivists.  

People who want to feel important, and matter.  It's true, for some the buck stops with the like of a page or a retweet, and it may never go beyond that. 

Now evidence suggests, and backs, that online activism can lead to a stronger interest in issues that effect society (Christensen, 2011). 

"It seems fair to say that most evidence in recent years points to the internet having a positive effect on off-line mobilization..."

Not only can slacktivism turn into more effective, online activism, but online activism can also turn into offline activism. 
There is no evidence from current studies to support the opposite.  

What is online activism?

Activism: consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct socialpoliticaleconomic, or environmental change, or stasis. The term connotes a peaceful form of conflict

The main difference between a slacktivist and an online activist is the intent or motive behind the choice of being an activist.  Getting involved because you genuinely care about the issues that effect your community and the rest of the world are what motivates an activist, not personal gain. 

Still, for many it would be hard to distinguish between the actions of a slacktivist or online activist. They are essentially doing the same thing.  Real activists though, (online or offline) tend to be more knowledgable. Like any passion or matter you care about, you will naturally invest more time and energy, ultimately acquiring a better understanding.

While there are many forms of online activism, the main forms we see are online campaigns run, shared and organised through social media platforms like FacebookTwitterBlogs, signing ePetitions, Videosemailing, Campaigning websites and more.  

Addressing concerns for online activism

"How can anything bad come from people who genuinely care about what’s going on around them?!".  *Insert cliche about good intentions here* Yup, sad but true, getting involved without doing your research can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Caring isn't enough on its own.  We need to make sure we care for the right reasons, for the right people.  To do this we need to learn more about the campaign or movement we care about.

We should never assume we know better than the people who are actually struggling.  If it's their message we want to fight for, it's their message we need to pass on, not our interpretation of it.  So whether it be working with a community overseas or locally, don't assume you know what the problem is at first glance.  You need to work with and alongside the people you want to help. "Help" does not mean, "do everything for me!".

Perception is everything! Kony2012
Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army

What tends to happen when issues come to our attention, is that we take them at face value.  

Case in point, Kony 2012.  What did we see?  A really touching video that went viral and accumulated over 90 million views. 

Unfortunately experts agree that the reason this video went viral was because it unintentionally oversimplified many of the issues.

The #Kony2012 campaign spread, causing an uproar around the world, to the point where the US interfered militarily, and 
still are, to help catch Kony. Whilst it bought the issue of child soldiers to the attention of many people, it was unsuccessful at bringing the right kind of attention. 

Kony is on the run and he needs to be brought before the ICC and dealt with. Unfortunately the chase has caused much of his army to splinter into many smaller groups.  It was hard enough to chase Kony when the LRA was a larger singular force, but now instead of chasing a large group they, have atomised into many smaller ones. Small 2-10 man groups, once part of the LRA, now roam LRA's old area of operations acting like bandits. Doing what they know how to do committing atrocities for food and supplies.  Not only this, but the increased attention on Kony has allowed other rebel groups, like M23 (seen as a bigger threat than Kony) to rise. Additionally, it turns out MANY governments already knew about the atrocities and crimes Kony conducted well before the campaign started.

No one wanted this outcome, but its what happened.

even more unexpected was the reaction the video received from the people of 
Uganda. They were hurt and confused by what they saw, and at the very first and last viewing, threw rocks at the screen. 

Why did this happen?

The movie oversimplified the issues, and didn't bring much help to the real victims of the LRA, the child soldiers, who were shunned by their communities for the horrors they were forced to commit.  Re-integration was not as easy as it looked.

Its sad to think it took so much for us to finally cast our gaze on this small spec in Africa and it turns out Kony was only the tip of the iceberg. 

 For whatever reason, like lack of publication, these underlying issues just don't make it to our news feed. There is no war, but business meetings. No blood, just people in suits. No grenades or guns, just people with documents and briefcases.  It doesn't look like a battlefield, but it is.

"If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself." 

-Teju cole

Teju Cole writes a very compelling article that goes to the depth of this issue.  Read it with an open mind and you won't be disappointed.  

Also remember that incidents like #Kony2012 and #Bringbackourgirls aren't isolated, they happen every day.

While it feels good to look for the short-term fix, like sending the military in, this doesn't give that country a lot of help in the long run.  Look at Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  Can we really say they are better off?  Sending in the military often has a destabilising effect.

A quick wrap up

Get involved with your countries politics, read those petitions, understand what that #campaign is about.  Ask yourself "what is going on in places like Uganda that could give rise to someone like Kony?". While we would all love to hear that Joseph Kony has been stopped, the issues that put him there are what we need to focus on.

Plain and simple online activism works and has had amazing success.  #Kony2012 and #Bringbackourgirls may be oversimplifying the issues, but to say all online activism does is wrong.

Check out or  for some great examples of online activism that have worked.

When you come across a campaign online ask yourself
  1. What is the campaign for and what is it trying to achieve?
  2. Why is it important? 
  3. Have they covered all the issues?
    1. Research arguments for and against this campaign.
  4. Is it important to you?
  5. Get Involved
    1. Ask around, share your opinion and ask others for theirs.  
    2. Never criticize some one for having different views from your own, criticize the views, but never the person.
If you feel you have anything you would like to add to this list please let me know in the comment section and I'll add it. The crux is to have an open mind.

Ideally you wont just stop with the click of a mouse. The more you get interested, the more you will do your homework, and you'll have a better understanding of how to direct your time and energy.

  • Online activism yields results
  • Online activism, when paired with offline activism produces the strongest results
  • there is a strong need to be informed of the issues when getting involved regardless of how easy it is to actually be involved. (how can we better address this?)

So stay tuned, I want to take you through some examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to online activism.  


Further reading

No comments:

Post a Comment