Activism or Slacktivism: Can Social Media Cause Social Change?

rainbowphone

By Hannah Baker

Red, white and blue weren’t the only colors Americans were seeing in their News Feeds early this July. In fact, all of the ROY G. BIV colors were likely to pop up. That’s because over 26 million people rainbowfied their profile picture to show support for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Such an outpouring of support is overwhelmingly heartwarming, especially since the changes were made within a mere three days of the decision. However, what do these numbers really show? What are the masses accomplishing, if anything, by using social media for political and social change?

Here's the good, the bad and how to get involved, successfully.

#HashtagActivism

Our era of activism depends heavily on actions similar to Facebook’s Rainbow Pride filter. Likes, shares and hashtags are all used in combination with profile picture changes to bolster efforts across channels and spread awareness. It introduces users to a topic they may have never heard about and, not only opens their eyes, but can also inspire them to do research on their own. Who knows what new cause will motivate someone to seek out more involvement? For example, how much do you know about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? What about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

Perhaps a splash of cold water will refresh your memory?

Perhaps a splash of cold water will refresh your memory?

The challenge, which asked participants to donate to their cause or record themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on themselves before nominating friends to do the same, exploded in the summer of 2014. In just one month, the challenge raised 98.2 million dollars for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, raising more than years of their offline fundraising efforts. 

Aside from monetary donations, hashtag activism also has the power to unite. After the Isla Vista shootings of 2014, Twitter users connected people around the world with the #YesAllWomen campaign. The movement spun the tragic event into a broader issue, allowing others to share their personal experiences and relate to other people's stories.

Slacktivism

A real danger of hashtag activism is that users misinterpret their simple online actions as enough to promote change. While this can occur with any movement, it’s especially common with movements that oversimplify their issues to a hashtag. It’s true that awareness can equate to power, but there needs to be some way to go from awareness to action.

Changing the world, or guilty of slacktivism?

Changing the world, or guilty of slacktivism?

An infamous example is the #Kony2012 campaign, which aimed to draw attention to capturing Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony. Among other factors, one reason the campaign failed was that it took a complicated issue and reduced it to a video. The complex political and socioeconomic issues of Uganda and surrounding area’s history were left untold, leaving participants convinced that demanding Kony be stopped via Facebook was enough to create change.

So, should you get involved?

If you come across a cause you care about, yes! A study shows that one of the main reasons volunteers worked for their cause is because their friends were doing it. What better way to see what friends are up to than posting on social media? Plus, campaigns have the power to create, identify and unite millions of supporters around the world who can go on to affect change. However, whether you’re thinking of creating your own campaign, or joining an ongoing one, keep in mind the following to avoid the dreaded slacktivism:

  1. Keep the action simple (without simplifying the idea behind it). The Facebook Rainbow Pride filter takes one click. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had two options: donate or get doused. Make the campaign action easy to do, but be clear about why people are doing it. 

  2. Connect with real life campaigns. Provide resources for people who want to do more, whether it’s through a donation, a petition or a protest. 

  3. Understand your limitations. Be humble. Sharing a post is not the same as participating in a march. Be proud of your support, but be proud of the work others are doing, too. 

Are there any other social media campaigns that have done well? Comment below with your insight as to why they succeeded.