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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
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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 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 is encouraging people interested in its cause to use Instagram. 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
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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