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Social Media: Tool for Activism or Fuel for Slacktivism

The whole of Europe and the rest of the world was shaken by the events in Paris a few weeks ago for which a minutes’ silence was observed. After the violence broke out, thousands upon thousands of individuals, institutions and companies took to social media to express their condolences for those who lost their lives, their loved ones, and the country as a whole.

The great power of social media is the sense of solidarity that it no doubt achieves. Every second ‘Friend’ of mine on Facebook had changed their profile picture to that of the faded tricolour blue, white and red within a day of the news breaking and heartfelt statuses filled the newsfeeds across Twitter and Facebook.

While many may see these actions as an effort of support and symbol of a global community, others may see it as a form of ‘slacktivism’, the perception – arguably the delusion – that you can effect change without really doing anything at all. Since the dawn of social media, members of the social space have been exposed to an ever-increasing number of causes and movements, and it is near impossible to act on all of them. So, the term ‘slacktivism’ promotes the underlying assumption that low-cost efforts, such as social media activity, substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplement them.

The real danger with slacktivism is that you are far less likely to research a cause before you share it on social media, than you are to research the same cause before participating in a protest. The light-touch nature of social sharing means that critical thinking is in danger of going out the window, particularly in response to a grabbing headline or emotive image. For instance, Anders Colding-Jørgensen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, created a Facebook page to raise awareness for an entirely fictional cause and 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.

Despite the pejorative tone, when the term slacktivism was coined in the 1990’s it actually had a positive connotation. It meant to make a small, personal societal contribution; for example, to plant a tree instead of participating in a Greenpeace protest. The Millennial generation is changing the tactics and strategies of social activism and we don’t even have to venture out of the house to do it. All it takes to lend our support is the click of a button. But does this click-and-share formula actually achieve anything?

Well, when her mother was detained for deportation, DREAMer activist Erika Andiola posted a YouTube video that led to her release. When the Ferguson protests began, DeRay McKesson left his job and helped build a national campaign using only a Twitter account. Human Rights Campaign’s Anastasia Khoo created an award-winning social media campaign that surfaced support for same-sex marriage. And #BringBackOurGirls brought the concern of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls into the global news remit, uniting the world’s population in solidarity, and resulting in UN action.

It may be that for some causes, the awareness that social media can create is enough to instigate change. Although this is not always the case, it is clear that, in this digital age, people power is strong and far-reaching. It can be used to tackle everything from international political issues to local economic ones, environmental concerns to social injustices.

We are lucky enough in the PR industry to witness the power of social media first hand and how it can bring people together and provide a platform for opinion forming and sharing. As PRs, we are well poised and perfectly equipped to use these social media channels in order to drive social purpose for the better. But this is also a power extended to many, far and beyond this industry, if they choose to seize it.

Amy Bremner-Stokes
Account Assistant

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