by Evgeny Morozov,
Last week, The Globe and Mail ran an article on the history of “slacktivism” (the G&M piece
seems to have grown out of an interview I did with CBC’s Spark a few weeks
ago on the same subject). “Slacktivism”
is an apt term to
describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or
social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist”
campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world
without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group. Remember
that online petition that you signed and forwarded to your entire
contacts list? That was probably an act of slacktivism…
“Slacktivism” is the ideal type of
activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the
risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as
loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media’s fixation on
all things digital — from blogging to social networking to Twitter — every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive
immediate media attention, as long as it’s geared towards the noble
causes. That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign
effectiveness is only of secondary importance.
The adherents of “slacktivism”
usually point a well-known narrative to justify what they are doing:
while it’s true that the dramatic fall in transaction costs of
organizing activist campaigns has simply opened up the field to many
more participants and issues, there has been no drop in the actual
quality and effectiveness of
these campaigns. It’s easy to dismiss most criticism of
“slacktivism” as simply unproductive: after all, having
thousands of people — most of them previously not involved in any
activist campaigns at all — suddenly start practicing the kind of
click-based “nano-activism” available via Facebook and Twitter
could be extremely useful, if only for specific campaigns that would,
indeed, benefit from increased public attention.
Perhaps, it’s high time to challenge
this narrative and ask a very difficult question: are the publicity
gains gained through this greater reliance on new media worth the
organizational losses that traditional activists entities are likely
to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from
conventional (and proven) forms of activism (demonstrations, sit-ins,
confrontation with police, strategic litigation, etc) and embrace
more “slacktivist” forms, which may be more secure but whose
effectiveness is still largely unproven?
Let’s not get into trying to find
answers to purely speculative questions like whether the utility of
the very public work of 1000 “slacktivists” equals that of the
very quiet and often unattributed work of one traditional activist.
The real issue here is whether the mere availability of the
“slacktivist” option is likely to push those who in the past
might have confronted the regime in person with demonstrations,
leaflets, and labor organizing to embrace the Facebook option and
join a gazillion online issue groups instead. If this is the case,
then the much-touted tools of digital liberation are only driving us
further away from the goal of democratization and building global
Of course, the ideal case here is when
one’s participation in digital activism doesn’t subtract from — and
instead enhances — one’s eagerness to participate in real-life campaigns.
However, it’s also quite possible that a significant portion of the
activist population would be morally content with the “slacktivist”
option alone, preferring not to get too close to more dangerous
activities that are likely to get them in trouble with authorities.
So should we be more careful when discussing the success of most
digital activism campaigns, since they may also have unanticipated
adverse effects on more effective forms of enacting political and
social change? (Of course, the relative effectiveness of one type of
activism over another is a matter of great contention too.)
I don’t really have a good answer here
and am increasingly of the opinion that the only way to conclusively
answer this question is a scientific one: we simply need to start
constructing gigantic surveys, otherwise these insights will forever
stay in the land of the anecdotal. I also think that it might be
useful to search for traces of “slacktivism” in other fields. For
example, is the growing public fascination with “ethical consumerism” likely to erode other more effective (and more
political) forms of protest? Given that some advocates of “ethical consumerism” still cling to the notion that “shopping is more
important that voting,” this may as well be the case.
I think if you look at it in
think if you look at it in terms of effecting change directly you’re
looking at it in the wrong way. “Slacktivism” appears to be much better
at building wide (although vague) consensus on an issue. Consensus, of
course, will never change the world, but it’s a nice step forward.
People who would never have heard of Darfur in the past now have a
little sticker on their Facebook that shows their support.
Ultimately, if someone publishes a research paper that shows that
slacktivism does have a net negative effect on participation it’s not
like it’s going to change any of the real world dynamics that cause the
average Joe to be more likely to support an idea in theory rather than
putting themselves on the line. Much more interesting would be research
on how to turn passive support into micropayments that can be turned
into real change by the truly committed.
Activist and Slactivist DNA
have met enough activists in my day to recognize that they share a
special gene pool. Which is to say that there tends to be something in
their personalities that motivates them to fight continuously against
perceived injustices while the rest of us think about what we’ll be
eating for dinner and which is the best microbrew. In fact, I think you
share their personality traits, but your abundance of energetic
ambition has – at least lately – been expressed in protesting against
slacktivists rather than allegedly oppressive governments.
The real power of online “activism” in my opinion lies in the power
of deconstructing simple narratives formed by monolithic
institutionsabout the oppressed and the oppressors, and encouraging
debate about how to bring about change. I agree with you that no matter
how many Facebook groups you join or online petitions you sign, nothing
is going to change in Darfur. However, if you are willing to dig deep
enough, any internet user today has access to more information about
the roots of the conflict than would have ever been imaginable just a
Of course, it is fair to argue that we will spend too many of our
24-hours-in-a-day informing ourselves and not enough time acting on
that information, but that’s not what I have found. When the majority
of my acquaintances have invested a great deal of time informing
themselves about conflicts in Sudan, DRC, and Liberia they want to get
more involved, not less. Most of them travel to these countries, enlist
with NGO’s, and realize that the dynamic they had once thought so
simple is actually very complex. That, in my opinion, is a big step
But you’re right, this is all anecdotal. Even surveys will be hopelessly biased – only representing the most vocal respondents.
Now, time for me to figure out what to eat for dinner …
I am sure the people of
am sure the people of Darfur are very appreciative of all the people on
Facebook who took the one second out of their busy lives to click and
add a sticker of support.
Slacktivism allows stupid, apathetic people to con themselves into believing they are helping make the world better place.
@money, I’m sure they are
I’m sure they are pretty much equally appreciative of those people
whether they add a sticker or just do nothing as they would have
otherwise, but that’s not really the point I was making.
It is not all or nothing though
activists, however, do use the web social media in addition to their
demonstrations, litigations, and sit-ins. Moreover, Slacktivist who go
too far in some countries by challenging the authorities are suddenly
arrested, harassed, and their computers taken away. In the Western
world, the Slacktivism model may be a good critique, but not
necessarily in other less democratic places in the world.
it DOES work… at least in my province
in Ontario (in Canada for those who don’t know), the government almost
passed a law forbidding people 18 and under with full licenses to carry
more than one person in the car. 4000 people joined a facebook group
protesting. It was mentioned all over the media here, until at last the
government gave up its quest… thank god
Not only this, but you can really equate joining a group online to
writing a letter to a newspaper. While it may not represent a view as
personal, creating a group will get many more people actually involved
and doing a positive action, in comparison to people reading and saying
‘oh, that’s nice’.