Slacktivists, unite! Social media campaigns aren’t just feel-good back patting

slacktivists unite headerIt feels satisfying and rewarding to stand up for something you believe in. Almost as good as it feels to be a floppy couch-potato-binge-viewing-garbage-human with a laptop … aka, a “slacktivist.” Slacktivism combines the pursuit of feel-good charity and the pursuit of not actually sacrificing anything except a single click. You’re a “like” away from a little rush of altruistic success.

But now Unicef is calling philanthropic poppycock on people who say they “like” ending poverty on Facebook or re-tweet a worthy charity but don’t donate money or volunteer or do anything beyond showing their support via social media. Unicef Sweden’s most recent “Likes Don’t Save Lives” campaign downplays the positive aspects of “slacktivism” and calls for greater engagement. 

While Unicef’s campaign is pretty barbed, it makes a point: Sure, with a few clicks of your mouse you can share a photo that makes you look like an informed, magnanimous person, but posting on social media doesn’t help people in the same way giving a donation or volunteering your time does. It’s hollow, and there are a variety of ways it keeps organizations from accomplishing anything – for instance, if it has to do with voting for a measure, a slew of 17-year-olds reposting a status won’t help anything. It also means bogus campaigns can get the same treatment and take over Twitter or Facebook. Or, of course, it means users will lightly skim the facts and share without actually learning or engaging with a cause.

But are we too quick to condemn slacktivism? While there are certainly issues, the positive side of digital activism is being ignored – which can be very detrimental, given that it can be very effective in the right hands.

What is “slacktivism” exactly?

the power of slacktivism_5029172f40c36For starters, let’s review the concept of slacktivism. Any time you endorse a cause on social media or sign an online petition without taking any corollary action outside the digital world (like donating money  or volunteering), you’re guilty of slacktivism.

In their campaign, Unicef provides an almost-savage takedown of people who support an organization on social media but don’t actually give that organization more “tangible” help. And it’s not a unique attitude; “slacktivism” has almost universally been denounced over the past few years. Malcolm Gladwell argued that this sort of click-and-like activism diminishes the chances of “real” activism. Gladwell says this is because a social network is not a hierarchy, and says that famous protests like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham sit-ins could have ever been organized on Facebook. “The things that King needed in Birmingham – discipline and strategy – were things that online social media cannot provide.”

What’s important to point out is that slacktivism is different than its cousin, “suckerism.”

Of course that’s difficult to swallow given how the prolonged protests during the Arab Spring used social networks to organize. Citizens used these social networks to organize both users they did and didn’t know, in their neighborhoods and across the globe – and it wouldn’t have been possible without tools like Twitter and Facebook. 

What’s important to point out is that slacktivism is different than its cousin, “suckerism.” This is where you re-tweet pictures of dying babies holding signs that say “I will get better if you ‘like’ this post.” The difference between slacktivism and suckerism is that slacktivism involves slackers doing the laziest thing possible to support a legitimate, worthy cause, while suckerism features people who don’t understand the Internet’s affinity for perpetuating hoaxes.

Of course, suckerism and slacktivism can unfortunately bleed into one another, and it can hurt the good causes out there, as well as the idea of digital volunteerism as a whole. 

 A catalyst at best, moral balancing at worst 

There are a few different major instances that illustrate why the idea of criticizing people who talk about issues online is misguided. 

First, look at the recent rash of marriage equality “slacktivism” that spread across social media when the United States Supreme Court heard two cases related to the legality of DOMA and Proposition 8. While there were real-life events staged in support of marriage equality, a non-profit called the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) came up with a red and pink equal sign icon to show solidarity with the LGBT community that went viral in a big way.

marriage equality campaign

Did people who changed their profile pictures actually have any impact on policy? In the short term, of course not; I seriously doubt Justice Scalia took any heed. But the fact that so many people were participating in this small way did bring attention to the issue, and underlined how mainstream the support of this once-fringe cause has become.

“The important distinction to make here is that there are different kinds of causes that require different kinds of action.  In a persuasion campaign the goal is to persuade the target to take an action by showing the target, perhaps a government official or corporation, that they will not have public support (or sales) otherwise,” Mary Joyce, the co-founder and public manager of the Digital Activism Research Project says of the Unicef campaign. “In this kind of campaign, registering one’s opinion online can be quite effective.  For example, the extremely successful campaign to prosecute Trayvon Martin’s killer and ask Bank of America to drop their debit card fee in 2011 were focused on Change.org e-petitions.”

Joyce pointed out that Unicef’s goals aren’t quite the same. “Service provision – what the UN is talking about – is different.  The goal is not to persuade a target to take an action.  The goal is to purchase and deliver goods such as vaccines.  Here the goal is ultimately fundraising, not persuasion.”

… Perhaps there’s a more proactive way to leverage this other than subtly mocking the simplicity of the Like button.

Still, that doesn’t mean it makes sense to criticize online activists. “The UN is still misguided in criticizing those who like to take action online. Those people can give micro-donations as well as Facebook likes.  Where would one collect these micro-donations? On the Internet.  How would one promote such a fundraising campaign?  Through social media.  Equating social media with ineffective slacktivism is pretty short-sighted.  It’s a rich medium that can serve organizations in a variety of ways.”

Just look at how Aids.gov is encouraging people interested in its cause to use Instagram. Aids.gov encourages HIV community-based organizations to use Instagram to de-stigmatize the disease and increase awareness, and they give step-by-step instructions how to post to the photo-sharing app. Will it cure AIDs? No. Will it start a conversation? Yes. 

Even though criticizing “slacktivists” is a generally futile endeavor, the Unicef ad may be effective for a few different reasons – via guilt, that old tried-and-true method. Someone who already “liked” Unicef on Facebook could feel compelled to do more about. It’s a tactic that targets a specific set of people, but guilt is a powerful tool and one no charitable organization should be above using. Joyce brought this point up as well, noting “In this case, the irony is that the UN’s anti-social media campaign is likely to get tremendous play on social media.  If this is the intent of the campaign, I think the UN deserves more credit than we are giving it.  They are effectively drawing attention to their cause.”

Some critics point to the failed KONY 2012 campaign to denigrate online activism as a detrimental activity. But Joyce points out that the problem with Invisible Children’s ill-fated campaign wasn’t its use of social media – it was its overall bad strategy.

Now, there is some evidence to suggest that people who are very active with promoting online causes engage in a type of “moral balancing,” according to a study called “Does Slacktivism Hurt Activism? The Effects of Moral Balancing and Consistency in Online Activism,” by researchers at Michigan State. But this evidence actually makes the Unicef critique less applicable.

kony_2012_wallpapers_by_angelmaker666 d4s2s90

In the study, researchers found that people are more likely to donate to a charity after they’ve signed an online petition than if they see the petition but don’t sign it. So people who are “slacktivists” for Unicef are more likely to contribute than those who aren’t. The study found that when they tested people who signed a petition versus people who didn’t sign a petition against a charity that had nothing to do with the petition, then the online activists were less likely to contribute – but while that may be “moral balancing,” it may also just means they were more interested in the type of causes they signed the petition about.

Digital Trends talked to one of the lead researchers on the Michigan State study, assistant professor Gary Hsieh, about how slacktivism is more complicated than both its critics and supporters think. He looked at how sometimes digital activism can encourage additional action, while other times it leads to the problematic moral balancing critics tend to pinpoint. “So the implications of our work is that framing of the civic actions matter. If we can get people to think of their actions as building on top of each other to support a larger cause, then I think we can better harness slacktivism.”

Basically, while people who engage in digital activism may do some “moral balancing” where they’re less inclined to participate with an unrelated charity, the idea that you’re going to opt out of donating to a cause once you “like” it on Facebook does not correspond with the research. In fact, the idea that people are eschewing traditional engagement with charity and activism in favor of social media doesn’t corroborate with a 2011 study on cause engagement by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations, which found that people still vastly prefer methods like donating and volunteering to posting pictures on Facebook.

“So-called slacktivists are more active than you may think,” the study noted.

Guilt only goes so far

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 4.05.16 PMUnicef likely knows it has nothing to fear from this “like” and dismiss trend – this campaign is most likely a savvy move to lightly guilt all those Unicef “likers” out there who to actually donate some real money or time. But this could also have the negative side effect of discouraging slacktivism than corralling new philanthropists.

Clearly social media isn’t going anywhere – so perhaps there’s a more proactive way to leverage this other than subtly mocking the simplicity of the Like button. Imagine how tempted people who “like” Unicef would be to donate if there was a donation button right next to the “like” button. Facebook already allows you to give gifts using charities like Oxfam America and Kiva, but Unicef isn’t an option yet. Instead of disparaging people who like their charity with a side of social media, the organization may be more successful making it as simple as possible to turn your “Like” into a more concrete form of help.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Features

The numbers don’t lie: Facebook is faltering. So what will eventually replace it?

Facebook is faltering, and the data prove it. User growth is slowing, employee outlooks are dipping, and young people are looking elsewhere. But for Facebook to fail, an alternative must arise. Who will it be?
Social Media

How to use Adobe Spark Post to spice up your social media images

Images are proven to get more likes than plain text -- but only if those images are good. Adobe Spark post is an AI-powered design program for non-designers. Here's how to use it to take your social media feeds to the next level.
Gaming

Want to kill unwilling players in Fallout 76? You can, but it will cost you

Fallout 76 is taking an interesting approach to unwanted PvP encounters. You will be able to murder other players, but doing so will place a bounty on your head that will be paid out of your own caps.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in August, from ‘Arrested Development’ to ‘Dark Tourist’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Mobile

Swapping an iPhone for a BlackBerry made me appreciate the physical keyboard

BlackBerry is preparing to release the BlackBerry KeyTwo, a new phone with a physical keyboard. If you've never used one, and are a touchscreen typist, what would it be like to swap? We changed our iPhone to a BlackBerry KeyOne to find out.
Smart Home

4 reasons my love affair with Amazon is fizzling

I used to be an avid Amazon shopper. But some things have happened recently that’s made me question my loyalty to the retail giant. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I can trust them any longer.
Mobile

iOS 12 is more evidence you should buy an iPhone, not an Android phone

The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12, will be compatible with devices all the way back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. Android phones from the same era didn’t even see 2016’s software update. It’s further evidence you…
Computing

Can we get an apology? Two big MacBook fails that Apple should fix at WWDC

WWDC is just around the corner, but if you're hoping for a new MacBook Pro, don't hold your breath. Even though it'll probably only be a CPU bump, there are two significant problems with the current MacBook Pro that have been ignored for…
Smart Home

Is Apple showing up late to the smart home party, or just not coming?

Apple’s WWDC 2018 featured a lot of little announcements, but what was largely missing was news on the smart home front. Is Amazon planning on being late to the smart home party, or are they planning on attending at all?
Mobile

5 obviously stupid iPhone problems that iOS 12 doesn’t even try to fix

At WWDC 2018, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its iOS operating system. iOS 12 introduces quite a bit of changes -- visually and under the hood -- but there are still some basics that it doesn’t address. Here are a few of…
Health & Fitness

Ugh. I’m done with fitness trackers, and so is the world

In 2016, everyone was tracking their fitness. In 2017, people grew tired of it. In 2018, I’m done with it. I’m going tracker-free in my workouts from now on.
Computing

MacOS Mojave brings evening elegance to your Mac experience

The MacOS Mojave public beta is out now, with an official release coming later this fall. Chock-full of quality-of-life upgrades, we took it for a test drive to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the next major update to MacOS…
Gaming

Google might be planning a game console. That doesn’t mean it will happen

A new report suggests that Google is working on a game console, code-named Yeti. The reports about Google's game console are likely true, but that doesn't mean we will ever see it.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.