understanding slaktivism

I have recently been researching the idea of online community and came across the concept of slacktivism; as Choi and Park* explain (they are looking at the use of social media in a protest movement in South Korea) online slacktivism is about soothing participants without contributing to any political or social impact.

An example that has been picked in the media recently has been the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, this in response to the abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls last April (for a summary go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-27293418 though this was posted in May); several commentators have pointed out the absurdity of the campaign set against the unyielding fanaticism of Boko Haram. For one, Scott Gilmore:

‘The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is the latest disgrace from slacktivists, those who support good causes by doing very little, and achieving even less. A slacktivist is someone who believes it is more important to be seen to help than to actually help. He will wear a T-shirt to raise awareness. She will wear a wristband to demonstrate support, sign a petition to add her voice, share a video to spread the message, even pour a bucket of ice over her head. The one thing slacktivists don’t do is help by, for example, giving money or time to those who are truly making the world a better place: the cancer researcher, the aid worker, the hospice manager.” http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-real-problem-with-slacktivism/

The phenomenon of slaktivism is not, of course, new. Tom Lehrer did a skit on the protest song movement in the mid 1960’s, he had a nice ironic line in song introductions,:

“One type of song that has come into increasing prominence in recent months is the folk-song of protest. You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a protest song is that it makes you feel so good.”

`You can hear the song at various places on YouTube e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yygMhtNQJ9M&list=RDyygMhtNQJ9M#t=33

Slacktivism is difficult to take when it slips into self-righteousness but by temperament I am a slacktivist. Choi and Park treat slacktivism fairly sympathetically too, noting for example it might lead as much to action in the future rather than an excuse not to act. If there is such a thing as hard activism, at the other end of slaktivism, this is not really embodied in the jobs people do, as Gilmore puts it, but in the stances they take  The people I know who do ‘truly good work’ would not raise their choice of occupation above the those of others; many are in some respects at least, by temperament, slaktivists too.

These thoughts on slacktivism were triggered by the news of the disappearance of student teachers from a training college in Ayotzinapa in Mexico – again more on the BBC site, for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-30047996

I noticed too what might be dismissed as a slacktivist response by Mexican illustrators and designers at http://ilustradoresconayotzinapa.tumblr.com . This invites artist to draw and paint portraits of the missing young people based on their student photos (I should stress that artists have traditionally had a more activist role in Mexican public life so there might be much more at stake in this initiative than meets the eyes). The online contributions have become widely shared using the hashtag #IlustradoresConAyotzinapa.

Critics of slacktivism are right to tell us how inadequate all this is, but when all is said and done, as with the Nigerian girls, the story of these student teachers breaks your heart; we will be lessened if we don’t offer some kind of response, as the Mexican illustrators have done as the BringBackOurGirls campaign did earlier, even though it will be of scant consolation for the families involved and of little practical help. We do need to be reminded of who we are and what we believe in, slaktivists or otherwise.

*Choi, Sujin and Park, Han Woo (2014) Title: An exploratory approach to a Twitter-based community centered on a political goal in South Korea: Who organized it, what they shared, and how they acted, New Media & Society, 16, 1, 129-148.

For those wanting more on the link between social media and activism try the Westminster Papers at http://www.westminster.ac.uk/camri/publications/wpcc volume 9,2 which I think is freely available.

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