Technology, the Internet, Social Media – they have all greatly changed the way in which we receive and share news these days. With the rise of social media, when it comes to raising awareness and increasing engagement in current social and political issues affecting communities, we have become increasingly reliant on the power it holds to influence. It’s due to this hashtag activism that many of us are now being exposed to issues that otherwise we would have had no clue about. Like everything to do with social media and technology, this concept of hashtag activism, more commonly known as slacktivism, naturally comes with its pros and cons.
Slacktivism is defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.” Some would argue that social media allows them to connect their cause to people from all over the world very quickly, while others dispute the fact as to whether this method of activism actually amounts to any real change; after all posting on social media about a certain cause does not mean that you have taken any action towards relieving the issue. Nowadays, activism on social media has taken over the more common methods of supporting a cause, such as donating money and volunteering your time to a charity. This isn’t to say that people don’t still do these acts, but retweeting a charitable cause on Twitter or liking a post about a fundraising effort is far easier than sacrificing your money or time. Even though people are well intentioned when they jump on the latest hashtag bandwagon, it reeks performativity.
In addition to this, the bombardment of causes is overwhelming. Sharing a cause on social media might actually not be engaging supporters as much as we think. There is such a plethora of issues being promoted on social media, that we don’t really know where to focus our attention. Instead of committing to one cause and concentrating on creating change, our support is scattered all over and often for a short-term period.
Let’s rewind back to March 2012, to what was one of the top ten most shared online petitions, according to the News Statesman, the #KONY2012 campaign. I’m sure many of us remember watching the viral video and feeling outraged at the war crimes being committed by the Ugandan rebel leader, Joseph Kony. Maybe you shared the video? Used the hashtag to express how you were feeling? And maybe even signed the petition? But let’s be honest, since then, how many of us have actually thought about Joseph Kony and his crimes and how they have affected the people of Uganda. Like many of the hashtag campaigns that have followed, the phenomenon surrounding #KONY2012 was short lived.
The campaign also serves as an example of how slacktivism can be used to exploit its supporters. The filmmakers asked viewers of the short documentary to send them money in order to help tackle the problem. Shouldn’t this money have gone directly to a charity that was supporting this campaign instead? Rather than the money being used to stop Kony himself, it was in fact used to just make another film about Kony which wasn’t really necessary. So not only were supporters financially exploited, but according to many Ugandans, the facts were all wrong. The counter-narrative in Uganda after the release of the films was that Kony and his guerilla group had had no real presence in Uganda since 2006. So what were we all really campaigning against? Were we all just following blindly due to the viral nature of this campaign?
But it’s not just #Kony2012 that has encouraged this passive involvement in activism in recent years. In the Summer of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was all the rage, yet how many of us actually donated money to the cause as well as throwing a bucket of cold water over our heads? The #BringBackOurGirls campaign in 2014 for the Chibok Schoolgirls Kidnapping case in Nigeria generated so much worldwide support and promotion, with even the likes of Michelle Obama, joining in. But really, is anyone still as engaged with bringing back our girls in 2018? The #TimesUp campaign and the wearing of all black at the Golden Globes a few weeks earlier has evoked so much conversation and debate on the topic of sexual assault, but like fellow LAPP Contributor Inês Mendonça puts it, now what? Is the hashtag and the black outfits truly impactful? With Oscar nominations just around the corner, are we going to be claiming #OscarsSoWhite again, or did the campaign and all the discussion that stemmed from it create enough of an impact that we won’t have to be calling out the Academy again this year?
Yes critics of slacktivism have the right to poke holes as to whether results have actually been garnered by a quick like of a post. There have been comparisons to the sit-ins and protests of the fifties and sixties that greatly aided the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Would we have actually made the same impact and level of change with slacktivism back then as the Martin Luther Kings, Rosa Parks and Malcolm Xs did? It’s easy to call out viral challenges in the name of a cause as slacktivism, but some do really make a difference. Yes, for many the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was about seeing their favourite celebrities having a bucket of cold water dunked over them, however the campaign raised over $100 million in the space of a month and a number of research projects were funded from this. We can compare hashtag activism to more physical acts of activism that took place decades ago, but really this current method is just keeping up with the times and the trends of today. We can say that it’s just a lazy way to get involved, but can you really criticise a retweet that has the power to reach hundreds, thousands, and even more people, than doing absolutely nothing at all?
The main question really is, how do we go about ensuring that our slacktivism turns into more than a hashtag and actually generates some form of substantial change? Well studies have shown that when you engage with more private acts of support, you have a deeper sense of connection to that issue. That’s not to say you shouldn’t engage with different causes on social media as you have no idea who that tweet or like is going to reach. The freedom we have on social media has enabled people to talk so openly about topics which is advantageous at times, yet slacktivism can also be more harmful to the movement when people jump into the conversation without offering any real solutions. Perhaps next time you get that urge to engage with an issue on social media, think about how you can continue to support the cause offline. Writing to your MP about an issue close to your heart, or participating in charity campaigns such as the Amnesty Write for Rights Campaign; volunteering within your community; going out and fundraising, these are the type of acts that will have a larger impact and create change. I agree, some of these acts and others I haven’t listed can be challenging for all sorts of reasons, but the motivation behind this all is the want to help people. It’s the thought of how you will be helping the lives of others that should encourage that want to do more than just your standard slacktivism.
Written by Aisha Rimi