Activism or “Slacktivism”? Are we a nation of online slackers?

Sunday Style had a feature article by freelance journalist Sarah Ayoub, looking at online activism, an article for which I was interviewed a few months ago.

Last month it was Facebook friends urging me to sign a petition to save Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death for alleged apostasy in Sudan, at the same time as every other Instagram image sported the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. Meanwhile my Twitter feed is filled with witty political criticisms ready to be re-tweeted.

In this digital age, people power is strong and far-reaching, tackling everything from international political issues to local economic ones, environmental concerns to social injustices.

And we don’t even have to venture out into the mayhem of a political protest to do it: all it takes to lend our support is the click of a button. But does this click-and-share formula achieve anything? Does the armchair activist, or ‘slacktivist’, make any kind of change at all?

“Slacktivism is used to describe actions with no real practical effect that give someone a feeling of having contributed,” says Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the intersection of social media, society and behaviour. “It’s usually associated with online sharing [and] posting of graphics or slogans to do with certain causes.”

Ayoub talks an unexpected look at the online political activities of conservatives, who engage in right-wing online proselytisation as a way to avoid social sanctions for their anti-gay marriage or religious views.

Stephen*, 34, realised early on in his career that his conservative views were the reason he wasn’t hired for a position at a TV network, and subsequently learnt to keep his opinions quiet. More than a decade later, he still prefers the anonymity of online petitions over active participation in marches and even the sharing of social-media campaigns, because he’s concerned about the repercussions on his future employment prospects, as well as his friendships.

I don’t think posting anonymously online really counts as online activism. A defining feature of online activism is that you’re willing to put your name to the things you write and say. The conservative examples she’s found are exactly the kind of people you’d expect to be trolls — unwilling to put their names to the objectionable thing they’re writing online.

In any case, I thought I’d use this opportunity to post the full text of my question and answer with Ayoub.


Why do you think people might prefer clicktivism/arm chair activism to the real thing?

In my experience, the people who are keen clicktivists are also more likely to be real-world activism. In fact, there is a lot of research that suggests that signing a petition on or liking Greenpeace on Facebook makes you more likely to support them in the real world, for example attending a rally or donating money.

However, there’s no doubt platforms like Facebook and make clicktivism “frictionless”. You can publicly like half a dozen worthy causes on Facebook instantly and painlessly, and services like Causes or Change let you sign half a dozen petitions in minutes.

Research also shows that people sign these petitions and share them on Facebook and Twitter as a way to build social capital. Signing a petition against the Shark Cull in WA or liking President Obama on Facebook can be a calculated statement from someone about they kind of person they want to be seen as.

Do you think we should dismiss clicktivists as inauthentic backers of a cause because they resort to cyber activity? What would you say in the case of people who have personal reasons (work, family) etc for not wanting to commit to a cause in terms of actual marches and the like?

Again, all the evidence suggests that clicktivism is a gateway to becoming more active in the real world. People who sign online petitions for example are three or four times more likely to donate to that cause or a related cause. Despite some politicians and corporations deriding clicktivism, the fact is that signing those petitions, sending emails and hijacking hashtags can actually change things.

Online activism and social media activism also makes these kinds of causes and protests more democratic. Twenty years ago, if you lived in a regional area but wanted to get involved in a cause, like refugee rights, you’d have to drive hours to the city to attend the Palm Sunday rally. Today, you can show your support far more easily and just as effectively as the old-style rallies.

Clicktivism doesn’t change the issues of someone not wanting to publicly commit to a cause because of work. Before the Internet, public servants found it just as difficult today to attend rallies as they do tweeting.

Do you think clicktivism is a generation Y and Z thing more than a generation X, Baby Boomer thing? Why/Why not?

It’s easy to pigeon-hole online activism as a Gen Y or Millenial thing, but the fastest growing user-base of organisations like Get Up and are Boomers, who are also the fastest growing users for Facebook. I think online activism/clicktivism is an attitude and values thing, which crosses generations. If you care about an issue, whether it’s animal rights, refugees or sexism, then you’ll engage in a range of ways.

Who is the typical clicktivist/slacktivist? How would you profile them and define them, and why do you think they do it?

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. If you’ve signed a petition or liked a cause in the past, you’re far more likely (up to 30% more likely depending on the issue or way you’re asked) to engage with a related cause or issue.

Because clicktivism is used by every cause and organisation under the sun, there’s no way to profile them. I assisted a disability organisation with a very successful online petition calling for the NDIS to be expanded into Victoria; the people who supported that cause were carers, parents and people with disabilities. They may be very different to people signing petitions supporting same-sex marriage (although there could obviously be overlap).

KONY is a great example of slacktivism….a couple of years on, how would you say it fared? And how would you perceive the #bringbackourgirls campaign to go?

The Kony campaign is an interesting case study, because it succeeded in its goal of “making Kony the most famous man in the world” and the US did send soldiers to try to kill him. Kony is still on the loose, but Invisible Children, the charity behind the video, has witnessed massive donor growth. Kony2012 is an easy campaign to criticise, because Kony is still at large; however it set itself a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and succeeded on a whole host of secondary objectives.

The #bringbackourgirls campaign is also a difficult campaign, because of the geopolitics of Nigeria. However, there’s no doubt that the media attention from the campaign has caused governments globally to support efforts to rescue those children.

A campaign closer to home would be the Destroy the Joint campaign, which initially targeted Alan Jones after he criticised Julia Gillard. The Destroy the Joint group, which was organised almost entirely on Facebook and Twitter, successfully resulted in most of 2GB’s advertisers pulling their ads on Jones’ slot. Since then, they’ve effectively engaged in online brand attacks against companies that have promoted sexism.

Another good example is Greenpeace running a Facebook campaign calling on company to “unfriend coal”. The campaign received enormous support from Facebook users, who were unaware that the social network used electricity from coal-fired power stations to run their servers. Facebook finally agreed to work with Greenpeace to increase the renewable energy percentage it sourced. This campaign also took online clicktivists offline by holding rallies and protests of volunteer supporters outside Facebook events and headquarters, thus demonstrating my earlier point that people who support causes online are more likely to take action off-line.

Plus anything else you might really want to share – the more personal experience of what you have done/seen/experienced the better, as I want some real-life examples as opposed to just ‘expert’ quotes.

Most cause-based organisations that run campaigns online are really most interested in how to turn that online action into off-line action. It’s the holy grail for campaigning. I was recently in Washington DC and Chicago talking with campaign groups including the Obama campaign about this, who said that the key objective for their groups is how to integrate “clicktivism” with old-style campaigning.

When I worked on the Obama campaign, there was tight integration between the “field” elements and digital campaigns, and field organisers were able to dig right into the famed Obama database. This meant that, for example, you could pull lists of people who were “digital-only” supporters for Obama and invite them to attend pro-Obama events, or to donate money. People who supported Obama online, who liked him or clicked his emails, were orders of magnitude more likely to attend rallies, donate or vote (remember it’s voluntary voting in the USA).

A lot of organisations in Australia are working to crack this challenge, but most are still a few years behind the US.

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