Recently, the so-called “social justice” slideshows and images have dominated our instagram feeds and stories. It seems as if adding a filter to profile pictures or sharing a ten slide powerpoint on a story is our generation’s response to every social injustice or political issue happening in the world. Online petitions, filters on social media, and infographics are our new form of social activism.
However, critics have marked such forms of social activism as slacktivism – a term coined by Dwight Ozard in 1995. It refers to an effortless and costless display of support for a social cause, without the intent to actually contribute to the cause. The increase in online presence, and with it the rise in online activism, is strongly correlated with a display of support for social issues without the corresponding effort to enact meaningful change.
Slacktivism, a term that combines the words “slacker” and “activism”, refers to low-cost, low-effort, online activism. Psychologists claim that slacktivism is a form of online activity whose purpose is partially to raise awareness, but predominantly to grant satisfaction for the engaged individual. The term is often used interchangeably with “clicktivism”, showing how the simple action of “clicking” to reshare a post on social media or follow an activist page results in a feeling of actually helping the cause and satisfaction for the engaged individual. Some of the most common forms include: reposting links to online petitions or infographics, joining facebook groups, or changing one’s profile picture and status.
Researcher Dr. Halpuka established a systemic heuristic that allows us to characterize clicktivism using the following features:
- Firstly, for an action to be classified as clicktivism it must be an impulsive gesture; it is an impromptu response rather than something the individual planned.
- Secondly, the action has to have weak accountability and little commitment, meaning that there is no mandatory follow-up action.
- It must be easily replicated, so that it can be accessed by the general public.
- Lastly, clicktivism should not draw upon any specialized knowledge, so that any individual with a minimal skill set can engage in this action.
Halpuka analyzed various forms of online activism through this heuristic model. For example, social buttons such as “like” or “share” found on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram allow the user to engage with the content in an impromptu, non-committed way. Individuals have little accountability for liking or sharing a post, and they can engage in this action regardless of how much knowledge they possess on the content of the original post. The structure of social media platforms and their features are an enabling mechanism for individuals to engage in slacktivism. However, it is important to highlight that the original creation of a status update or slideshow is not a form of clicktivism itself. According to Halpuka’s model, the reaction to original content, namely reposting and liking, instead is a prime example of clicktivism.
“If you make a Facebook page we will ‘like’ it—it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do.”Seth Meyers
One of the main reasons individuals engage in slacktivism is predominately thanks to the format of social media platforms. Online interactions, such as the social buttons, check all of the characteristics in Halpuka’s model, encouraging users to repost and react to content in an effortless way. However, these characteristics are not the sole cause of why this type of online activism has become so widespread. Studies have shown that a core reason for this activity is people’s desire to present a positive image of themselves. Social media has become a tool where we can create a unique persona we present to others, and engaging in online activism can show our concern and interest in various political, social and humanitarian issues.
A study done by researcher Kristofferson provides empirical evidence that when activism is socially observable individuals are more likely to partake in it. In his study he looked at how likely individuals were to donate to a social cause when the token of support was publicly or privately observable or completely absent. He found that when the support is publically visible individuals are more likely to donate to the cause, to agree to the volunteering request, and to contribute more time overall to prosocial action. These findings were true for experiments conducted in person and online, on platforms such as Facebook. It confirms that one of the motives for individuals to contribute to a cause is to display a positive self-image.
Moreover, another finding stemming from Kristofferson’s study is that people participate in activism on social media to gain gratification of social participation. When we are consistent with our own values or values of our in-group we gain utility and social gratification. Sharing a post on our story or changing our profile pictures can create a feeling of belonging, especially if it is a social norm, a standard, of our in-group.
Although it seems as if online activism has become more prevalent it has not transformed into further support for social causes. This can be traced to the fact that social media has taken away the accountability and effort needed to initially support the cause. Studies have shown that when more effort is required to participate in the first place, the individual is more likely to exert even more effort in future. Since sharing a link or changing your status is so effortless, individuals do not feel compelled to take a real, tangible step towards social change. Secondly, online activism often lacks emotional investment, so it does not secure committed behaviors. Individuals have a harder time empathizing with individuals we do not have direct contact with. Lastly, there is the trade-off hypothesis: when people show support online for cause, it inhibits effective offline activism. By engaging in online activism, individuals feel gratification and satisfaction of actually helping the cause already and hence are less compelled to further participate in prosocial action.
With the rise in popularity of social media platforms, slacktivism has been the dominant form of online activism among its users. Critics have argued that due to the nature of online activism –its lack of accountability, low effort, and lack of emotional investment– it does not translate efficiently into meaningful social change.
Comedian Seth Meyers once said, “If you make a Facebook page we will ‘like’ it—it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do.” I wonder if the rise in slacktivism will confirm his prediction.
Chou, E. Y., Hsu, D. Y., & Hernon, E. (2020). From slacktivism to activism: Improving the commitment power of e-pledges for prosocial causes. PLOS ONE, 15(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231314
Dookhoo, S. (2015). How millennials engage in social media activism: A uses and gratifications approach. University of Central Florida. http://purl.fcla.edu/fcla/etd/CFE0005941
Gervais, D. (2021, September 20). The effectiveness of social media activism. The Medium. Retrieved April 24, 2022, from https://themedium.ca/the-effectiveness-of-social-media-activism/
Greijdanus, H., de Matos Fernandes, C. A., Turner-Zwinkels, F., Honari, A., Roos, C. A., Rosenbusch, H., & Postmes, T. (2020). The psychology of online activism and social movements: relations between online and offline collective action. Current Opinion in Psychology, 35, 49–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.03.003
Halupka, M. (2014). Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic. Policy & Internet, 6(2), 115–132. https://doi.org/10.1002/1944-2866.poi355
Kristofferson, K., White, K., & Peloza, J. (2013). The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(6), 1149–1166. https://doi.org/10.1086/674137
St. Louis Public Radio. (2014, January 3). Activism or slacktivism? How social media hurts and helps student activism. STLPR. Retrieved April 24, 2022, from https://news.stlpublicradio.org/2014-01-02/activism-or-slacktivism-how-social-media-hurts-and-helps-student-activism