‘In Contemplation of Activism. (And Defense of Slacktivism?)’ Revisited

By Erin Clements

Erin is currently an MSc candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She studies social policy and development with a focus on non-governmental organizations.

*This article is meant to build on Samantha’s original article titled, “In Contemplation of Activism. (And Defense of Slactivism?)”. If you have not read it yet, please do.

When I tell people that I get news alerts on my phone from three separate news organizations, four if I include emails, I often get strange looks. It’s a real conversation ender. But on the off chance that someone is interested enough to ask me why, I tell them that not only do I believe that staying up-to-date is part of being an informed member of the electorate, but I also enjoy comparing news coverage from different sources. And that is usually the last nail in the coffin of the conversation (see my previous article for a larger collection of disaster and crisis puns). 

Social anxiety issues aside, the evolution of news in the world of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is worth observing. News has become interactive, and people have the ability to share stories that are important to them, to commend on and debate them, and even to contribute to them as “citizen journalists.” This type of participation is perhaps most visible in the wake of major crises like the recent attacks in Paris.

As soon as the news alerts about the initial shootings popped up on my phone and and the scale of the attack became clear, I very closely began monitoring my own social media networks. I wanted to see how the people within my own network, which most likely includes the 5 people who will read this article (awkward), would utilize social media in reaction to the news of the crisis.

However, my dedication to monitoring online engagement came from my interest in something else entirely – “Slacktivism.” Slacktivism is the derogatory term for online engagement and activism. By definition it is the act of engaging in relatively effortless online activity about political or social issues that leaves individuals feeling satisfied with their contribution to a cause. Examples of this include signing online petitions, following aid organizations on Twitter or Facebook and sharing their posts, or changing one’s profile picture to a symbol supporting a cause.

Slacktivism is incredibly controversial because it holds in contempt something that anyone who is currently breathing and has an Internet connection does. It also calls into question how activism and participation are defined, and suggests that there is a right way and a wrong way to contribute to a cause. In my eyes, even if everyone engaging with issues online would not call themselves “activists,” they are still acting within the activism and public engagement realm.

And after staying up and observing those online responses that Friday night and the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of calling my acquaintances “slacktivists.” This is something Samantha discussed in her original article too, and to me it didn’t sit quite right. I have a fairly diverse social media circle, with multiple religions, nationalities, ages, political affiliations, and education backgrounds represented. And everyone from high school friends in St. Louis, Missouri to former coworkers in Mombasa, Kenya took to social media to engage with the Paris attacks. I saw people on the opposite ends of the political spectrum sharing, commenting, and engaging. I also saw people who never post anything but pictures of their children engaging with the crisis online. This brief window of time following a crisis like the Paris attacks seemed different than other catalysts for online engagement.

It was at this point that I began to make the distinction between online engagement for long-term causes and online engagement in the wake of a crisis. But by making that distinction I only had more questions, three of which I explore below. I honestly don’t have the answers to these questions, but I have spent a lot of time exploring each of them. I hope my thoughts will spark discussions and engagement…. which will most likely take place online. 

 

1. Where are the lines between activist, slacktivist, and non-activist? 

In her article, Samantha did an incredible job of outlining how difficult it is to define who is and who is not an activist.

She wrote, “I've gone to counter Westboro protests in the past, I protested after the BP Oil Disaster. But I didn't go to the Climate March last week. I didn't go to Flood Wall Street. I never camped out for Occupy. How frequently must one protest in the streets to be considered an activist? Is calling someone out on sexist behavior, as I go about my day, being an activist? Is stopping on the street to sign a petition in support of planned parenthood, being an activist? Is donating monthly to an organization promoting secularism, being an activist?. . . And the famed question, is incessantly sharing news articles about the causes I support, on social media, activism?” 

Part of her point is that defining activism is difficult because it is perceived as a title or a long-term activity. But no one can be a capital “A” Activist at all times. We get sick, we have our souls and energy sucked out by graduate school, we have families, and every now and then we all have serious cravings for shark fin soup (ok maybe not). But drawing crystal-clear lines is impossible, and who gets to draw those lines anyway? To address this issue, Samantha raises the argument that activism should be perceived as a spectrum that we can all fit within.

Plus, when critiquing the merits of slacktivism, people often skim over its complexities. For example, sometimes online activism is extremely effective. In another great quote from Samantha’s original article, she wrote, “Slacktivism is said to be damaging to causes because people think they can change their profile picture to a red equal sign and be done. But sometimes sharing videos of ice buckets ends up raising millions of dollars.” Another example is how people often assume that everyone engaging in online activism is doing so in a western context. Often what we consider slacktivism is the only form of activism that people can safely participate in.  

I don’t think there is ever a clear-cut answer. But I believe there are two important things to keep in mind when discussing this question. The first is that it matters how success is defined. If the goal is to get a piece of legislation passed and you need support in numbers to do so, then embracing the scale that an online petition can bring you is a good thing even if you cannot guarantee individual lifestyle changes for each signatory. However, if you define success as changing beliefs and lifestyle choices of individuals, then in-person engagement is probably more “activist-y” than online engagement.

The second thing to keep in mind is consistency. If Facebook posts are slacktivism regardless of how informed and intelligent the conversations are, then I think it is also fair to call sitting around in a classroom at LSE slacktivism. That is to say that if an element of action is required to label something activism and discourse alone will not do, then such a criticism should be applied to all relevant scenarios. 

2. What is the function of social media in a crisis?

After reviewing my own observation, I found three main functions of social media in the window of time following the Paris crisis, all of which are interrelated. 

A tool for …. wait for it…. communication

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. were created to connect people through various forms of communication. In the hours following the Paris crisis, people used social media to check on the wellbeing of others, alert people to their own wellbeing, and to share information to better understand what had actually taken place. 

Social media also created an additional platform for news organizations to disseminate breaking news instantly, for better or worse. And going back to my article on the Syrian Refugee Crisis (a second shameless plug), social media in general plays a large roll in triggering the beginning and end of a crisis, which in turn influences the timeline and climate that aid organizations and political institutions have to work within.

Facebook has also begun to implemented features that allow social media to play a direct and functional role in crisis response. For example, Facebook has promoted aid and blood donations for various disasters and crises in the past. During the events in Paris they also implemented a ”Safety Check” feature so that people could alert friends and family to their safety status. They used this feature after the Nepal earthquake as well. Other organizations also used Facebook as a way to let people know about safe spaces they could stay if they felt they were in danger.

 

Activism and public debate (AKA voicing our opinions)

There were a lot of different sentiments expressed in the wake of the attack. For example:

1. The philosophical,  “Why is there so much hatred in the world?”

2. The political, “Here are 10 Reasons why the [insert political party you dislike] let this happen”

3. The personal, “I hope my loved ones are safe”

4. The trending, “#PrayForParis”

5. The profile picture change 

   

 

 

On top of these messages, people also shared posts and photos from news organizations, celebrities, religious leaders, politicians, etc. Many of these people have no more authority than you or me in the midst of a crisis, but that is perhaps a topic for another article. Social media was also used to organize protests and remembrances in cities across the globe.

The last thing I observed was people who used social media to further their own agendas. For example, before 24 hours had passed many politicians were using the attacks to promote their views on harsher immigration laws because “all refugees are terrorists.”  Others immediately argued that it was outrageous how much support and news coverage Paris received in comparison to attacks in Beirut and Garissa, Kenya.  However, one specific article stuck out to me in its attempt to present experiences of people in both Paris and Beirut side-by-side rather than as competitors for attention.


Solidarity

I chose to distinguish solidarity from online activism because if activism’s function is to act or react, solidarity’s function is to support or empathize. These are not always the same thing. I spent a lot of time thinking about how the same action can be done with different intentions by different people. For example, changing your Facebook profile picture to the French flag can be done with the intention of activism or solidarity.

I also took note of how companies, organizations, and public institutions reacted. While most took a solidarity stance, they all made sure that any post was aligned with their existing social media and branding strategy. For example, the White House Facebook page and Instagram account expressed messages of solidarity by posting photos and videos of President Obama’s brief statement in support of France. Similarly, David Cameron’s Facebook page expressed messages of engagement and leadership on his part to address the issue. Upworthy posted a photo of the Eiffel Tower with an inspirational quote from Mr. Rogers next to it, which fits in with their mission to inspire people and draw their attentions to “things that matter.”

Within this idea of solidarity, social media also creates a “social gold standard.” By enhancing the concept of all things “trending” through the use of hashtags, images, slogans, profile pictures, etc., social media creates a baseline of socially acceptable, status-symbol actions. This could potentially mean that popularity and the dreaded FOMO influence post-crisis solidarity trends. Similarly, trends could possibly place moral pressures on people. Not changing your profile picture or expressing solidarity in other ways may make individuals feel guilty or like others may judge them.

 

3. Why do large numbers of people engage with a crisis when they otherwise would focus on different causes or not engage at all? 

Before the dust had settled in Paris, my newsfeed was covered in more red, white, and blue than on the Fourth of July. I also suddenly discovered how many of my acquaintances are scholars of Islam, military strategy, and Middle Eastern politics. 

Sarcasm aside, the sheer quantity of posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter made me realize how crises engage people in ways that long-term causes does not. In my mind, this is because the hours following a disaster or crisis are different than the weeks, months, and years that follow. This is true in the same way that a emergency room’s function is different than that of a rehabilitation unit. The expertise, strategy, and even ethics are focused on saving a life rather than sustaining or improving it. During the immediate aftermath of a crisis, there is a need for specialized and immediate crisis response that includes things like emergency medical care, search and rescue operations, hostage negotiation, etc. Once these immediate needs have been met, the “crisis” is labeled as over and the process of long-term support, service provision, and political negotiation can begin.

This makes online activism in the wake of a crisis significant in my eyes, because rather than debating what economic or political strategy will most effectively solve a long-term institutional problem, it unites people into a conversation about one issue. It is almost as if crises have a neutralizing or de-politicizing effect. This is in contrast with how long-term movements like Black Lives Matter are received. Perhaps that is because massive violence is much more visible to people of all socioeconomic, racial, political, and religious backgrounds than centuries of institutionalized oppression and prejudice. This in turn leads to sudden, and usually brief, solidarity in terms of public conversation. This hypothesis is obviously not always true, as “crisis” is an increasingly flexible term in relation to violence countries like the U.S. But that is a topic for yet another article.

Exploring these three questions has led me to the belief that we should not critique online activism in the wake of a crisis in the same way we critique online activism for long-term causes. In the window of time following a crisis, online engagement might actually fill a void for the international community. People generally want to help in a crisis or disaster, whether it is by donating money, food, clothing, time, etc. But often within the immediate aftermath of a crisis, especially a crisis like the attacks in Paris, there is not much people can do. In fact, often the best thing they can do is stay out of the way and let police and military, aid workers, government officials, and trained personnel do their jobs.

This is where solidarity comes in. Staying silent and doing nothing carries a very heavy message in times of tragedy, and social media has a unique and fleeting opportunity to provide a service of solidarity at a time when it is too soon to know what else can be done. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that if someone criticized you for changing your Facebook profile picture to the French flag, tell that person: