Challenging “Slacktivism”: Activism On Social Media Is Not Enough

10/31/2016 08:19 PM ET
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Updated Sep 08, 2017

Upon checking Facebook this morning, I was blown away by my news feed that consisted almost entirely of the same message posted and re-posted by my Facebook friends. This was the viral status:

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department has been using Facebook check-ins to find out who is at Randing Stock in order to target them in attempts to disrupt the prayer camps. So, Water Protectors are calling on EVERYONE to check in at Standing Rock, ND to overwhelm and confuse them. This is concrete action that can protect people putting their bodies and well-beings on the line that we can do without leaving our homes.

Will you join me in Standing Rock?

If you’re sharing your location at Randing Stock (which you should be doing)

1) make it public

2) make the clarification post separate, and so that only your friends can see it

3) don’t clarify on your check in, message friends who say “stay safe!” to let them know what’s up ― the stay safe posts are more convincing / confusing for p*lice

4) copy paste to share clarification messages (like this one) because making it public blows our cover

5) say “Randing Stock” in clarification posts so that when they filter out / search those terms, your post is visible to the right people

In addition to posting this status, many of my Facebook friends followed what the viral message said to do, which was to “check-in” at Standing Rock with the intent “to overwhelm and confuse [police].” At first, I thought it was awesome to see so many people wanting to participate in the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline and I even considered checking-in at Standing Rock, myself. After a day’s worth of consideration, I decided not to.

How many people conducted a fact check on the situation at Standing Rock? Is the Morton County Sheriff’s Department actually using Facebook check-ins to identify protesters? Who ever said that thousands of people checking-in at Standing Rock would “confuse” police? Why would the protesters who are physically at Standing Rock check-in if they knew they would risk being targeted by police in the first place? It remains unclear where this idea even originated and no sources validating this information are cited in the statuses at all. Is it not imperative to first verify if the information is true and not just a rumor?

In my opinion, viral activism on social media ― like checking-in at Standing Rock, sharing trending hashtags, or changing one’s profile picture to have the color of a country’s flag, for example ― is, for the most part, incredibly superficial. Sure, it is great for garnering attention about an issue (which is important), but it is ultimately just a fad that suddenly booms in popularity, but dies out as quickly as it appears. People mindlessly join in before swiftly moving on to the next campaign in vogue and abandoning the previous one. On the outside, it may look like true activism but in reality, this activism is paper-thin ― ”slacktivism,” as I call it. Online “slacktivism” is often as shallow as the participants’ knowledge on the movements themselves.

It seems to me that people are so eager to do as their social media friends do and jump on the latest activist bandwagon before researching and familiarizing themselves with the cause and what it is that they are doing. I admit, it is tempting to hop on the bandwagon, but before I do anything I take a step back to think critically about whether what I am doing will actually achieve anything or whether it will only get “likes” that are ultimately meaningless. Despite the enthusiasm and appearance of genuine concern running rampant on my news feed, I ask myself, where is the depth and the passion? How can something with little depth have an impact in the real, non-virtual world?

Participating in social activism on Facebook does not do much more than help people construct a “socially aware” image of themselves and give them the sense that they are actually making a difference. Sometimes people can make an impact by engaging in viral activism on social media, even if it is a small impact; however, they most often do not. Remember the infamous #Kony2012 “movement” to capture the Ugandan cult and militia leader and stop forced recruitment of child soldiers? Or #bringbackourgirls, the worldwide campaign that took social media by storm? It aimed to convince the Nigerian government to work harder to find the 276 girls abducted in Chibok by Boko Haram. Was the fact that millions of people posted the same hashtag going to bring back the girls? The ultimate measure of success is the outcome: the girls are still missing, more than two years later. How about the pink and red equal sign profile pictures? Was changing one’s profile picture to this symbol going to end homophobia and change those who do not believe in marriage equality? No. Though same-sex marriage was eventually legalized, there is still a ways to go. Is the public expression of solidarity and of one’s support for a cause a good start? Yes -but it is only a start.

Social media activism is merely an acceptable starting point for someone to participate in a cause they truly believe in. There is much more that can be done that many people ― already content with their contribution on social media ― do not do. Posting a status or hashtag is the bare minimum. I realize that people have busy lives and personal constraints and that one may not have the time or money to contribute to a cause. If this is you, do what you can; if that means sticking to activism on social media, make sure you fully understand the cause you are supporting, truly believe that your post can help, and are not just doing it because it is trending.

I encourage everyone who stands with the Standing Rock Sioux, who considers themselves allies of any marginalized community, or who wants to fight injustice to go out there and find more effective ways to participate in social and political change. March. Protest. Write letters to politicians. Donate to organizations. Attend talks to educate yourself further so you can more effectively bring about change. Volunteer. Engage in dialogue with others. Do what you can to UTILIZE YOUR POTENTIAL because we are all capable of changing this world for the better. It is up to each one of us individually to take this potential and run with it past our own expectations.

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Click here to read my previous article, Black Beauty, White Standards.