Slacktivism is not an effective approach to online activism

Social justice can be achieved online with effort and commitment

Instagram activism requires more work than sharing and re-posting. PHOTO: Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

By: Nancy La, Staff Writer 

As someone who has organized an online educational resource on the Downtown Eastside overdose crisis, I’m familiar with the pros and cons of using social media as an activism tool. Based on my experience, there are essentially two types of online activism: active content creation and passive transmission. From what I’ve seen, the former, albeit difficult and time-consuming, is effective. The amount of effort put into content creation can be equivalent to (or even greater) than traditional forms of activism. It is passive transmission that gives online activism a bad reputation, earning it the term “slacktivism.

Slacktivism is essentially activism through social media, characterized by its lack of commitment to the cause in question. Activities such as reposting or reblogging are the most commonly seen forms of it. Remember the black squares that flooded the internet last year? That is a prime example of slacktivism — it does nothing to the cause and actually causes problems for the movement it is supposed to help by distracting from other resources in feeds and hashtags. Because slacktivism does not require further effort from the person participating in it, the level of actual work done is only surface deep. Slacktivism is a category of performance activism, where the main goal is to put on an appearance of action when in fact, nothing is done for the cause.

There are exceptions to this, as seen in the justice movement against the occupation of Palestine. When it is explicitly stated that reposting and sharing of knowledge is integral to the movement, then it is important for that to be respected. What is important is the distinction between reposting because it is helpful and that is what the creators of the movements wanted, and reposting because it’s easy, effortless, and helps with a person’s online presence. 

That is not to say that all online activism is worthless. We have to keep in mind that activism, in general, has changed. It is no longer mandatory for participants to march on streets to prove a point. For those unable to physically participate in a protest, or if a pandemic renders it impossible to meet in groups, online protests are the way to go. If trying to garner as many signatures or attention on a certain subject is the goal of a protest or movement, then the convenience of online activism makes it an effective and inclusive way to support the fight against global and local injustices. The problem is — out of the 100 reposts or likes for a particular post, how many people will continue to advocate for it and help make it happen?

There’s no need to look far for an example of online activism being effective. The Black Lives Matter movement, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, began with a Facebook post back in 2013. The hashtag and the protests associated with it went on to be popular and frequently used on Twitter. The Black Lives Matter movement is an example of how active content creation and engagement with the cause can succeed online. An example of the movement’s success is the ban of chokeholds in certain states such as Colorado. Unlike slacktivism, creating content and encouraging engagement online is extremely difficult.

From the work that I’ve done on social media, I know that consistently creating content within the limits of the specific platforms is time-consuming and at times, exhausting. The statistics for my project were abysmally low, despite working with support from SUCCESS, one of the biggest social service agencies in Canada. The issue was that despite reaching a wide audience, the content itself never received interactions beyond that of a “like” or “thumbs-up.”

Meaningful work cannot happen without effort, and those who believe otherwise are disillusioned by slacktivism’s easy appearance.

Slacktivism alone is not enough to change the systemic issues we are facing today. It is also not representative of the power of online activism. In the end, it all boils down to how much work a person is willing to invest in a cause that they believe in. Whether a person is passive or active in their online activism, it is honestly better than doing nothing at all and looking the other way.