The rapid development and uptake of online technologies is shifting the way that people engage in political activism. Web 2.0 is characterized by user participation and user created content (UCC) leading to the emergence of the ‘produser’; the user who produces content. These changes present new opportunities for user engagement and participation, and carry potential to increase the effectiveness of social movements and political activism, by allowing key functions of activism to take place online (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013).
The benefits of online activism however, are widely debated, with suggestion of serious negative impacts. The primary criticism centres on the emergence of ‘slacktivism’ (Rotman et al, 2011) or ‘clicktivism’ (Morozov, 2009), a predominantly derogatory term describing easy, low-cost engagement having little to no actual benefit (Halupka, 2014).
This essay aims to discuss the potential benefits of online activism, and potential risks associated with ‘slacktivism’. It also aims to highlight key elements needed to reduce ‘slacktivism’ and promote meaningful activism.
Arguments for social media in social movements
Activism is any action bringing about social or political change. Historically, it occurred in offline spaces, and in specific geographical locations. Online technologies however, have changed the way that key activist functions are performed.
Joyce (2011) outlines seven activist functions that can now take place online: documenting (story telling), broadcasting (information sharing), mobilizing (preparing for action), co-creating (information creation), synthesizing (information interpretation), protecting (safety from censorship and surveillance), and gathering and transferring resources (fundraising; crowdsourcing).
Mora (2014) suggests that the most important activism tool brought by online technologies is its ability to provide “channels for building relationships and connections through which information can flow.” Brodock et al. (2009) showed that most people enter digital activism through social networks, highlighting the importance of social networking sites (SNS’s). Brodock also suggests that in online activism (as with traditional offline activism), relationships were more important than content for building social movements.
The ability for online spaces to perform key activist functions, including the establishment and development of relationships is exemplified in the movement ‘Love Makes a Way’.
The movement was founded in 2014 in response to the Australian governments ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, which sought to prevent the resettlement of maritime-arrival asylum seekers in Australia.
In reaction to the government’s position of ‘No Way’, a growing movement of Christians sought an end to this policy through prayer and non-violent action, declaring instead, that ‘Love Makes a Way’. (For more, see http://www.fmreview.org/faith/campbell; LMAW facebook page).
Love Makes a Way successfully supplements offline activism with digital activism, performing a number of its key activist functions online.
It raises awareness about the plight of asylum seekers, and uses public pressure in the hope of changing government policy. This is primarily done through non-violent direct acts of civil disobedience in the form of ‘sit-in’ prayer vigils within offices of politicians. To date, there have been 24 actions of civil disobedience nation-wide involving more than 160 people leading to 138 arrests.
While this primary activity occurs offline, it is dependent on digital activity. Love Makes a Way does not have a website or an office. It is solely reliant on social media to perform its key activist functions. Facebook (11k followers) and Twitter (2k followers) are used to (A) document the issue and how the social movement is responding, (B) broadcast information about the issue and their own activities to followers (C) recruit and mobilize people to take part in offline actions and (D) gather and transfer funds to resource the movement. The most recent ‘sit in’ action this month exemplified this with live tweeting/posting of photos and videos throughout the day, documenting and broadcasting information to followers all around the country. This was supplemented by a Buzzfeeed post, 8 things we did in 8 hours at Malcolm Turnbull’s office.
The movement is particularly proficient at moving people through 4 stages of activism. From low-risk, low-cost activities such as liking and sharing posts (1), through to attending public, but low-risk prayer vigils (2), to non-violent direct action training events (3), and ultimately, to participating in arrestable, non-violent direct actions (4).
Arguments against social media in social movements
Despite the potential benefits however, critics warn against the use of online activism for fear of ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’ (Rotman, 2011).
This is low-risk, low-cost activism that gives a “sense of moral justification without the need to actually engage” (Lee & Hsieh, 2013). It is argued that by encouraging apathy and normalizing ineffective action, ‘slacktivism’ undermines meaningful activism and hinders more substantial engagement (Halupka, 2014).
A poignant example is the 2013 UNICEF campaign “Likes don’t save lives, money does”. The campaign challenged viewers to help provide polio vaccines not just by liking or sharing social media posts, but through financial contributions. For UNICEF, ‘clicktivism’ had replaced meaningful activism. The three part video campaign featured a young orphan boy speaking to the audience: “Sometimes I worry that I will get sick, like my mom got sick. But I think everything will be all right. Today, UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook.”
Then a caption appears on the screen, “Likes don’t save lives. Money does.”
UNICEF also controversially released a poster stating that for every Facebook like received, it will provide exactly zero vaccinations.
While UNICEF’s communications director Petra Hallebrant acknowledged that online activism can be beneficial for large-scale awareness raising, she warned of the danger of ‘clicktivism’, “We like likes, and social media could be a good first step to get involved, but it cannot stop there…likes don’t save children’s lives. We need money to buy vaccines.”
Ironically, the UNICEF campaign went viral. The videos were viewed more than 750,000 times from 195 countries, generating more than 10,500 tweets. Not only was it viral, the campaign raised significant funds for 637, 324 vaccinations.
Key elements for meaningful activism
Given the potential of social media to enhance, but also reduce the effectiveness of social movements, it is important to identify elements of digital media practice that help prevent ‘clicktivism’ and promote meaningful activism.
Firstly, it is important to supplement digital activities with offline activities. While many activist functions can take place in digital spaces, offline activities are often required for meaningful activism to occur, such as political protests, or voting. For each movement, it is important to have clarity around which key functions can and cannot be performed in digital spaces.
Secondly, while it may be valuable to reward low-risk, low-cost behavior initially, followers should be continually encouraged to increase their level of commitment, effort and intensity towards the movement’s ultimate desired behaviours. Van Laer & Van Aelst’s (2010) provide a helpful framework for classifying digital activism by the participation threshold. Participation threshold refers to the risk, commitment, effort or intensity of the digital action and is described in terms of complexity, risk and cost to the activist. This framework can be used to classify actions, and encourage activists to increase their level of commitment.
Finally, it is important not to under-estimate the role of social networking sites in relationship building. While many critics challenge the ability of online social networking to produce real commitment, Tufekci (2011) argues that the large pools of social connections which occur between people online are crucial to building robust networks of committed activists.
During this semester I initiated a campaign centred on UCC and participatory media, facilitating key functions of online activism. Users were encouraged to create and share their own content via a photo competition centred around the concept of the #unselfie. The ‘Unselfie’ (A selfie for an un-selfish purpose) required users to take a photo of themselves with a Fair Trade certified product in the shot. The purchase of a Fair Trade product is a key behavioural outcome for anti-slavery organisations, decreasing the demand for cheap and exploitative labour in supply chains around the world.
My aim was that participants could express opinions and ideas around a political object as well as create and share content as produsers. This increased awareness of the issue of modern day slavery, and built connections between Not For Sale Australia (my chosen organisation) and new users. This was the first time that Not For Sale Australia had moved beyond the passive consumption of content. In addition, I supplemented this digital action with an offline activity of making an ethical purchase in the real world. In this way, I encouraged followers to increase the cost, effort and commitment of their activism. While the risk of ‘slacktivism’ is still considerable in the context of the anti-slavery movement, through this assignment and related theory, I have learned the positive contribution that social media can make to achieving the key functions of activism, and the importance of continually encouraging activists to increase their level of effort, risk and commitment in order to achieve the organisation’s mission.
Brodock, K., Joyce, M. and Zaeck, T. (2009). Digital activism survey: report 2009. DigiActive Research Series, July. http://www.digiactive.org/wpcontent/uploads/Research4_SurveyReport2009.pdf
Halupka, M. (2014). Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic. Policy & Internet, 6(2), 115-131.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. , 55-76. Sage Publications, London, England.
Joyce, M. (2011). The 7 activist uses of digital tech: the case of popular resistance in Egypt. Non-Violent Conflict. Webinar. April 12. http://www.nonviolentconflict. org/index.php/learning-and-resources/educational-initiatives/academic-webinarseries/1535-the-7-activist-uses-of-digital-tech-the-case-of-popular-resistance-in-egypt/-joyce_resources
Lee, Y-H. and Hsieh, G. (2013). Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism? The effect of moral balancing and consistency in online activism. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on human factors in computing systems, April 27, Paris, France.
Mora, F. (2014). Emergent Digital Activism: The Generational/Technological Connection. The Journal of Community Informatics, 10(1), 1-13.
Morozov, E. (2009). The brave new world of slacktivism. Net.Effect: Foreign Policy. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104302141
Rotman, D., Vieweg, S., Yardi, S., Chi, E., Preece, J., Shneiderman, B., Pirolli, P. and Glaisyer, T. (2011). From slacktivism to activism: participatory culture in the age of social media. CHI 2011, May 7-12, Vancouver, Canada.
Tufekci, Z. (2011). What Gladwell gets wrong: the real problem is scale mismatch (plus, weak and strong ties are complementary and supportive). http://technosociology.org/?p=178
Van Laer, J. and Van Aelst, P. (2010). Internet and social movements action repertoires: opportunities and limitations. Information, Communication and Society, 13(8), 1146-1171.