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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.

Author

  • Lee-Roy Chetty holds a Master's degree in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and is the author of a book titled – Imagining Web 3.0 Follow him on Twitter @leeroy_chetty. He can also be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

12 Comments

  1. Dennis Minadoo Dennis Minadoo 3 May 2012

    Well done Lee-Roy we are all the way behind you

  2. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 3 May 2012

    I have not done any of those things, but probably because I’d prefer to be a cold-hearted sod then an idiot.

  3. sakmaz sakmaz 3 May 2012

    so, can I link to this article on G+ ?

  4. S. Bod S. Bod 4 May 2012

    Some of your facts are incorrect, and undermine your case. The Kony 2012 campaign led the African Union creating a 5,000 strong force to capture Kony (http://tinyurl.com/82cbgst), and leading the US congress to pass a number of resolutions pledging US support to hunt down Kony (http://tinyurl.com/7327p4m).

    I am unaware of any concrete achievements of the Occupy Movement. Could you perhaps name some?

  5. MLH MLH 4 May 2012

    Great post.
    One must choose one’s causes. But if you look at it from a different angle, how many of us would have ignored everything due to not knowing about anything? I’m sure some people on marches also peel off before the petition is delivered or all Africa has been fed. How much better is it to attend a concert or function in support of whatever and do nothing more? The event seldom contributes much to the purse, it cost too much to stage.
    I think all the social media go back to the fact that people have always been excited to see their name in print, whether in bylines or as players in news-media stories. Today, anyone can make a mark…even if he’s only commenting on this excellent post.

  6. peter peter 4 May 2012

    Not having done any of the things listed on your checklist, I guess then I am not a slacktivist. However I consider that I am realsitic enough to know that facebook is dangerous, tweeting is nonsense and both of these platforms illustrate an inate inability by users to actually think for themselves, thus requiring the ridiculous social connections to create any kind of communication, which to them is meaningful, but to those who can think for themselves remains idiotic. At some time people have to wake up to reality, recognize the problems which they have been instrumental in creating and make a consolidated effort to deal with those problems instead of just opting out as you put it. I do not think that the present leaders and inhabitants of this planet have either the ability or the will to do that, so the only solution is that this wondrous planet does what is required and wipes out humanity which has no right at all to consider itself either sacred ( Godless),human ( Sadistic), intelligent (Ridiculous), capable ( Stupid ), nor morally worthy ( Perverted ) of anything but extinction. Time to take a good hard look at our behaviour, be totally honest for a change and miraculously discover that only the truth is revolutionary. Be at peace and be aware that the destructors are on their way to self destruction. Amen.

  7. Frank Frank 4 May 2012

    Surely with the amount of charitable organisations and African dictators we have today any one person can’t only feel emotive about one topic as they have in the past. Previously awareness was the issue and we were only made aware of a few issues around the world. People put all their emotions into being an activist for one or two things. Now everyday their seems to be a new dictator that needs a kick in the butt or kitten that needs saving. Surely it is impossible to focus any charitable thoughts in one direction without ignoring another range of pressing issues.

    Supply and demand economics of charitable activism.

  8. Fran Fran 5 May 2012

    I was going to share this excellent post with my slack friends on Facebook and Twitter but now I don’t think that would be appropriate.

  9. citoyen citoyen 7 May 2012

    Great article.

    A favourite slacktivist site – Avaaz – has recently shown its true colours and many people have wised up.

    Started by ‘activists’ trained at elite universities and funded by American-agenda funds, it concentrates on a number of very good causes, intermingled with ‘save the dolphins’ and ‘save women’s uteruses’.

    So far, so good.

    It then showed its true colours when it came out firmly in support of NATO bombing civilians in Libya – despite letters of protest. So anti-war and un-biased it is not, particularly when it comes to supporting the Washington Consensus agenda.

    It has also played a dubious part in Syria, where it has gone beyond running petitions and actually inserts ‘journalists’ into the country, supplying sound equipment to unknown ‘rebels’ of unknown provenance. [See the Avaaz site for this information. Don;t take my word for it].

    Now AVAAZ has censored a petition calling for One Million Signatures to the US Department of Commerce NIST (Nat. Institute of Standards and Technology) to come clean on its reports on the 7-second implosion of World Trade Centre Building Seven (not hit by a plane in 2001).

    Avaaz literally pulled the petition less than 24 hours after it commenced. Why? See http://www.ae911truth.org.

    Read: ‘Why the NIST Report of Building Seven’s Collapse is Erroneous and Fraudulent” by Professor David R Griffin (Claremont Uni, California).
    Also “Mounting Evidence: Why a New Investigation is Needed” by Dr Paul…

  10. LKJ LKJ 9 May 2012

    We all have blood on our hands in some way and must all be active in the solution… A Mind-blowing book we should all read is by Dr. Zimbardo ; “The Lucifer effect, how good people turn evil” by Philip zimbardo and he also has good info on the website. It has chilling statistics and also condenses a variety of psychological research including Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment showing how in a few days good people were turned into perpetrators of violence and Stanley Milgram’s experiments on how we as normal decent good people can harm each other when told to do so by authority or soldiers such as in the holocaust; genocide in Ruwanda or when community members influence others in xenophobia, kangaroo courts, or groups of young men raping a young girl, or splinter groups in mass rallies taking on an evil twists or even bullying at work or schools, fraud at corporates, governments etc the list goes on. These are situations where people feel they are more invisible ad become less accountable or feel intimidated by group dynamics or peer pressure etc. You will question yourself. We need a wake up call-all of us! We are impacted not only our personality but also by the situations we find ourselves in and we need to be aware of how these things can get out of hand so easily ad lead to crime. We must learn from good research and take action. Even those who stand by and watch also have blood on their hands. In fact, we all hurt people in some way even those we say we love

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