The Sincerity Behind The Digital Activism

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In the past few years, there has been an emergence of many forms of activism such as judicial and citizen activism, environmental activism, digital or internet activism, economic activism, visual activism, and activism in literature. In today’s digital age, it’s hard to determine if online social movement efforts are activism or slacktivism. Digital activism involves the use of digital tools, such as the internet, smart devices, and social media, for bringing about social and political change (Rees, 2015). Although digital activism started in the 80’s, with the introduction of the web it became more popular. Social media has sparked an increase in growth to the point where entire campaigns can now be run online. This is because it can reach a large group of people. Some of the tools used are online petitions, social networks, blogs, and mobile phones. However, when users just share a post about a social or political movement they’re passionate about or sign an online petition, how much good can it do if they don’t actually act upon this? Slacktivism is taking social action online in ways that involve little personal effort and do not have a great impact. This form of activism is used as a feel-good method for users. There are many positives and negatives to online social movements or digital activism. Throughout the years, online social movement efforts have turned into slacktivism because they’re not effective, are used for personal gain, and has the ability to manipulate users.

The evolution of activism started at the beginning of politics. Protesting or activism consists of the desire to make changes in society through efforts to promote, direct, or intervene in social or political reform (BK101, 2019). Although protesting is not new, the platform people use has drastically changed. Forms of activism started through petitioning, boycotts, running or contributing in certain campaigns, and protests, rallies, strikes, and sit-ins. Throughout history, activists used books, newspapers, and pamphlets to persuade others and send a message. As early as 1915-1920, “activism” and “activist” were seen in the dictionary as political terms. These terms trace back to the early understanding of collective behavior and social action. Then throughout the 1960’s, there was a new understanding of activism. It emerged as an acceptable democratic option of protest and appeal. However, prior to this, signs of activism can be seen throughout history such as during the slave revolts and even when there was a rebellion in the Roman Empire.

First, before The United States was created, there were a number of protests in different states that began the Revolutionary War, which led to the creation of the American nation. The power of the people did not stop there though. Shays Rebellion started when farmers in Massachusetts organized and fought against the government because of the taxes placed upon them. Unfortunately, their protest ended quickly without result for them, but it led to the creation of the constitution. In 1831, Nat Turner sparked the slave rebellion which set off a chain of events that started the Civil War. Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, women still did not have the right to vote, but through their protests they received this right in 1920. In 1969, the protesters at the Stonewall Inn clashed with police officers and it led to the LGBTQ+ community asserting their rights. However, one of the most important social and political movements of the twentieth century was the peaceful protests held by the black community to receive the rights they were promised as a result of the Civil War. This was one of the first peaceful forms of activism, as in the first 200 years of American history activism was often characterized as violent. The notion of non-violent resistance came to the forefront during Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement. This era sparked a shift in the tactics used by activists.

Due to the rise of internet, activism shifted from being physical to being virtual. Digital social and political movements use a variety of digital mediums to get their message across. Some of these include, the internet, mobile devices, blogs, online petitions, and social media. Although this type of activism became popular in 2011, it has actually been around for decades. During the 1990’s, digital activism gained traction because new platforms were launching (Peters, 2011). Due to the fact that social media has made activism more convenient, users are more favorable. Many online activists can participate in campaigns in a quick and easy manner such as sharing a link to online petitions through Change.org, signing one of those petitions, donating to a certain cause, retweeting a tweet, or by simply expressing your political stance. These are quick and easy ways of getting your voice heard. Particularly, the younger generations actively participate in this form of activism (Loizou, 2019). Americans aged between 18 to 49 are more likely to participate in internet activism compared to ages 50 and up (Anderson, 2018). Around the world, people have become more aware of and interested in the increased use of digital technologies in campaigns for political and social change (Joyce, 2010, p. 7). Internet activism has the effect of causing increased collective action among people. Users want to maintain their social involvement online. Technology has allowed us to have direct contact with the government and is poised to increase political engagement nationwide.

In the past year, 34% of Americans have taken part in a group on social media that shares an interest in a political or social issue/cause. 32% have encouraged others to take action on issues that resonate with them, 19% have looked up information on local protests/rallies, 18% have changed their profile pictures to support a cause, and 14% have used hashtags related to a political/social issue. Also, 53% of Americans have been civically active on social media throughout the past year by doing these activities (Anderson, p. 3). Not only this, but people use social media to connect with others who share similar political or social viewpoints, believe that social networking sites get elected officials to pay attention to issues, think these platforms give a voice to underrepresented groups, and bring light to situations that are rarely talked about. Although this form of activism has many positives, especially because it’s more convenient, it’s questionable as to whether or not it is effective.

Typically, there are two main limitations when it comes to online activism. First, there are technical limitations such as access to the internet, computer literacy, and government censorship. The second type of limitation involves the effectiveness of online activism. There’s very little impact when there isn’t a physical presence. Due to the fact that most of this “activism” happens online, it lacks substance and isn’t taken too literally. For example, when a large group of people post about a particular political topic or sign a petition, it doesn’t compare to the meaning when thousands of people gather to protest. There is a certain significance when people come together to act upon an issue they care about. As stated by the United States Supreme Court in 1939, “Public ‘streets and parks … [from] time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly … Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens” (Malchik, 2019). Effective protests require true action, people need to gather and have access to public spaces because it’s our right. Recently, social media has been considered as a large platform for political and social activism, but although it’s easy to create a movement online, it’s difficult to actually have any effect. Therefore, users who strictly participate in digital activism are taking the easy way out.

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Slacktivism is a term created by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995. The term was made to shorten the phrase slacker activism. Specifically, slacktivism involves “taking social action online in ways that involve little personal effort and have little immediate effect” (Wigmore, 2019). Slacktivism requires minimal efforts which makes people less likely to actually take effective actions. Some examples of this include, sharing and promoting content about issues through social media, joining organizations without contributing significantly, signing a petition without donating to the campaign, and boycotting organizations. Many slacktivists find validation in participating in these acts. They believe that their efforts will lead to increased awareness of a cause and that itself is a worthy reason to participate in them. Slacktivists only perform small measures and while that’s a start, they are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change. On social media, it’s easy to simply like a post or share an article, but users aren’t actually engaging. In 2014, the hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, became a campaign to save 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram (Taylor, 2014). Although the campaign received support on social media from millions, the girls were still missing a year later and people stopped using the hashtag. There is barely any action taken by participants in digital campaigns because they believe that sharing a post will help. Slacktivism is only used for feel-good measures in support for an issue. The main reason as to why users participate is to increase their online presence and boost their egos.

Furthermore, slacktivism contributes to social media users need to fit in. They want to portray a certain identity online. People also want to post about topics that they know they’ll get a response to. Danah Boyd states, “many teens post information on social media that they think is funny of intended to give a particular impression to a narrow audience…” (Boyd, 2014) . Similarly, the same thing can be said about digital activism or slacktivism. Instead of posting something funny, users are posting about political and social issues in order to portray a certain identity and get a response from others. Mostly, they are looking for a positive reaction in order to receive validation or their actions. They want to feel as though they participated in something good. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman describes social rituals as self-presentation or “impression management”. Goffman argues

“The impressions we make on others are a product of what is given and what is given off. In other words, what we convey to others is a matter of what we choose to share in order to make a good impression and also what we unintentionally reveal as a byproduct of who we are and how we react with others” (Boyd, 2014).

When slacktivists share a post on social media or sign a petition, they are looking to make an impression on others. They want to portray an image of being an “activist” but in reality they are doing very minimal efforts that’s not effective. On top of this, based on what is given to them, slacktivists will share information about certain issues that they notice their friends have shared. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.

Not only this, but slacktivism can be used as a way to falsely advertise and steal money from participants. Most slacktivism campaigns are based off of false information and people are vulnerable to these hoaxes. In 2012, there was a campaign, Kony 2012, that was used to exploit others. The documentary was created to ask viewers to send money to the filmmakers rather than African law enforcement. They created, Invisible Children, a charity for the film. They received $31.9 million dollars and didn’t use it to stop the issue (Cadwalladar, 2013) . The creators used this money to make another documentary about the same topic. On top of this, the African law enforcement had been after Kony for years, so these efforts were done for monetary gain. Although slacktivism has become more tame, users still need to be careful about what/who they are donating to. It’s important for participants to complete research on an issue and organization to ensure that nothing is being exaggerated or falsely attributed. For example, Change.org houses thousands of petitions and slacktivists use these sites to feel good about themselves, but it’s better than giving money to people who manipulate others.

Overall, the emergence of many forms of activism such as digital activism makes it harder to determine whether or not people’s actions are genuine. When users share a post about a social or political movement they’re passionate about or sign an online petition, it’s questionable how much of an effect this will have. Slacktivism, the social action online in ways that involve little personal effort and have little immediate effect, have become popular. This form of activism is used as a feel-good method for users. It’s also a quick and easy form of activism that requires no engagement, which in turn causes little to no effect. However, it can also be used as a manipulation strategy for personal gain. Thus, throughout the years, activism has turned into slacktivism because these campaigns are not effective, are used for personal ego boosts, and manipulates users.     

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