Slacktivism: technology is only as good as the people who use it

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Since the dawn of social media, citizens of the social space have been exposed to an ever-increasing number of causes and movements. This in turn has helped to propagate the notion of ‘slacktivism’, the perception - arguably the delusion - that you can effect change without really doing anything at all.

Despite the pejorative tone, when the term slacktivism was coined in the 90’s it had a positive connotation. Slacktivism meant to make a small, personal societal contribution; to plant a tree instead of participating in a Greenpeace protest, for example. As technology has advanced and the term took on a digital dimension, our methods for mobilization have become lazier. We can share, like and tweet about the issues that concern us from the comfort of our sofas instead of participating in more meaningful methods for effecting societal change. Nevertheless, there have been positive examples of slacktivism in the social space. Social sharing has been instrumental in educating and empowering a global audience about issues of global significance, from raising awareness of the 3rd world education deficit, to challenging DOMA in the U.S., to supporting women’s rights in India.

Slacktivism can be equally compelling when turned towards matters of local importance. When Kamryn Renfro, a 9 year old girl from Colorado, shaved her head in support of a school friend who lost her hair to chemotherapy, she was initially banned from her school for breaching school policy. When Kamryn’s story ‘went viral’, her school was compelled to reverse their decision. Similarly when 9 year old New Yorker Grayson Bruce was told by teachers not to bring his ‘My Little Pony’ rucksack to school because it was a ‘trigger’ for bullying – social media users piled pressure on the school, who subsequently reversed their stance.

So slacktivism is a positive thing; surely clicking ‘like’, ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ is better than doing nothing, right? In fact, slacktivists are twice as likely to participate in meaningful activity (such as donating or volunteering to a cause) than non-slacktivists according to a study by Georgetown University, so where is the harm in all the tweeting and sharing?

The danger with slacktivism is that you are far less likely to research a cause before you share it on Facebook, than you are to research the same cause before participating in a protest march.

The light-touch nature of social sharing, signing online petitions and even contributing to Kickstarter or IndieGoGo projects, means that critical thinking goes out the window, particularly in response to a grabbing headline or emotive image.

In 2009, to explore this phenomenon, Anders Colding-Jørgensen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, created a Facebook page to raise awareness for an entirely fictional cause: the prevention of the demolition of Copenhagen’s famous Stork Fountain. Within two weeks the page had 27,000 members. Presumably, hooked in by a provocative headline and supporting imagery, these would-be activists joined the page without researching the topic at all, else they’d have found that the monument was listed, and under no threat whatsoever of demolition.

Many real-life causes have been obfuscated by a similar lack of research. Kony 2012, the documentary by Invisible Children, for example, horribly oversimplified and dumbed down an incredibly complex geopolitical story to maximize the story’s penetration. In doing so Invisible Children propagated wildly false information, which was absorbed and regurgitated en masse. Despite this irresponsible reportage the video was viewed 76 million times, and mentioned online 160 million times, in the two months after its release.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions across numerous platforms asking the Prime Minister of the Faroe Islands to call a halt to the Grindadráp (the annual Pilot Whale hunt) despite the fact that the hunt is pivotal to the country’s food supply and culture. Campaigners against this ancient practise, thought to be roughly 1,200 years old, used dated imagery, incorrectly insinuated that the Faroe Islands were under Danish jurisdiction, and, somewhat comically, even fabricated an entire species: the ‘Calderon Dolphin’ (because dolphin sounds cuter than whale, right?) to optimise the viral reach of their campaign, which was seen by millions.

These two examples are incredibly dangerous in different ways. Some observers argue that members of the U.S. government exploited the potency of Kony 2012, using the documentary to justify the militarisation of ally states in Africa under the guise of tackling the ‘Kony problem’. Meanwhile, the latter example demonstrates the victimisation of a small and vulnerable group of people based on the integrity of their farming techniques, when many modern Western agricultural methods are far more barbaric. I don’t recall a letter from the Faroe Islands to the EU or the U.S. to ask that we call a halt to battery cages, intensive pig farming, gavage-feeding for Fois Gras production or any number of other inhumane agricultural techniques that we choose to ignore on a daily basis.

With recent technological advances it is easier than ever to disseminate your message. However, with that power should come great responsibility, to paraphrase Uncle Ben’s famous homily. In this case the responsibility is to engage your critical faculty and to research stories before advocating them.

Let us not mindlessly believe and regurgitate everything we read, like some faux-enraged marionette theatre.

We live in an age where #nomakeup selfies are regarded as activism, where you can accidentally adopt a polar bear at the click of a button, where Twitter can be misappropriated to orchestrate riots throughout the UK, and where 300,000 people are eagerly anticipating a White House response to an ‘Extradite Justin Bieber’ petition. We have to ask ourselves: with such incredible tools for societal advancement at our disposal, can’t we do better?

 
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