Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

The rise of the slacktivist

We’re all guilty of it. Some more than others, but nonetheless, we’re all culpable. Log on to Facebook or Twitter, hit the “like” or “favourite” button and, for a fleeting moment, we feel like we’re somehow making a tangible difference in the world. But surely it’s slightly more complicated than that?

In 1970, poet Gil Scott-Heron wrote The revolution will not be televised. The poem’s first stanza opens with the verse “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop-out.” Over 40 years later, with the state of the global economy in stagnation due to the recklessness and avarice of the world’s financial institutions (which gave rise to the social media-driven Occupy movements and the 99 percent), continued unrest in the Middle East and North Africa resulting in the Jasmine revolution blooming into the Arab Spring with the assistance of Facebook and Twitter, as well as seismic shifts in the balance of global power from the West to the East all occurring in an ever increasing digital and networked world, you can’t help the feeling that in the 21st century, the revolution may actually just be tweeted. Does Scott-Heron’s poem of yesterday’s era seem hopelessly out of touch with today’s hyper-connected world?

On the surface it seems that this is what today’s digitally armed activists are exactly able to do. Stay at home. Plug in. And more often than not, simply cop-out when they lose interest or conviction. Don’t get me wrong. The power of social media and the internet has allowed us to learn more about issues than ever before. Stay at home. Plug in. Become aware. But it’s the “cop-out” bit that has me most concerned. Performing the effortless task of liking a post where one of your “friends” on Facebook has just shared their latest exotic holiday photographs or tagged a picture of you looking slightly worse for wear last Phuza Thursday and expressing a profound, digital solidarity with kidnapped children in Africa or the plight of the rhino has a remarkably different set of implications. But it all looks so similar from the keyboard of your Mac, iPad or latest smartphone, doesn’t it? In the seemingly frictionless ecosystem of the web, it costs nothing more than a click of a mouse or the double tap of a finger to register concern about all the ills that blight our world.

This new online armchair activism has given rise to the concept of slacktivism. The 21st century slacktivist is a term first coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995, and describes an individual who is or gets involved in support of an issue or cause that will require minimal personal effort. Concerned that you may be one? Here’s a checklist.

You may be a slactivist if you:
• Re-tweeted something about a cause.
• Participated in a short-term boycott.
• Turned-off your power for an hour.
• Donated through text messaging.
• You’re wearing some sort of awareness bracelet.
• Changed your Facebook status in support of a cause.
• Signed some form of online petition.
• Shared a video about a cause.
• Bought a product because they will donate a portion of proceeds to charity.

Sounding all a bit too familiar isn’t it? But can 500 000 “activists” on Twitter or Facebook really meaningfully change something? As someone who immerses themselves within the social media environment, I know the seduction and pull of digital activism can be powerfully intoxicating. However, the danger of activist fatigue online is also becoming a distinct reality. Another week, another cause or hashtag to rally behind and, with it, a question about what is actually being tangibly accomplished. The real threat is that in our online world, the digital cause of the day, week, or month are all beginning to blend together. So it’s so easy to just, well, cop-out when it becomes boring or requires too much effort.

Take, for example, the Kony 2012 Cover the Night campaign. The social movement enjoyed unprecedented success in mobilising citizens of the world online after the release of their Hollywood-styled, slick but controversial and factually incorrect documentary on Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Kony. To date, the 29-minute video has been viewed over 112-million times on YouTube, but has failed to turn online activism into real word actions. The reality is that social media can only mobilise people to act in ways that require little commitment, without taking serious risks and without the motivated, deep conviction required for real change to occur. Ultimately, this is the difference between online activism and real protest.

But what of the Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran and the Occupy movements? Surely that was the power of online activism at its best? Well, there’s one fundamental difference. Those activists were willing to take their online protest and desire for change to the streets, squares and financial capitals of the world and put themselves in the line of fire. Some were pepper-sprayed, tasered, tear-gassed, beaten and arrested. Others were tortured, detained without trial, shot, killed and never to be heard of again. In short, they were willing to put real life action and protest where their hashtag or Facebook status was. They had skin in the game.

Could it be that the majority of people online (including you and I) will often associate ourselves with online movements and causes for our own selfish and self-indulgent purposes? Are we maybe attempting to impress our Facebook friends or Twitter followers and once we have managed to achieve that, there is really very little reason to actually do anything else? Meaningful, I mean. Maybe Scott-Heron wasn’t so wrong after all. Not only will the revolution not be televised, it’s more than likely that it won’t be tweeted either.

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