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‘Slacktivism’ gives impression of impact, but is Internet activism really effective?

Michelle+Obama+posted+this+photo+on+Twitter+to+raise+awareness+of+the+abduction+of+about+300+Nigerian+schoolgirls.+%28Creative+Commons%29
Michelle Obama posted this photo on Twitter to raise awareness of the abduction of about 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. (Creative Commons)

Michelle Obama posted this photo on Twitter to raise awareness of the abduction of about 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. (Creative Commons)

Michelle Obama posted this photo on Twitter to raise awareness of the abduction of about 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. (Creative Commons)

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In March of last year, 2.7 million people changed their Facebook profile pictures to a red equal sign in solidarity with the Human Rights Campaign to show they support marriage equality. The year before that, the “Kony 2012” video, which hoped to raise awareness of African militia leader Joseph Kony, was posted by Invisible Children and has since received 99,439,515 views. This year, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has racked up nearly 4 million mentions on Twitter since the April 14 abduction of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls.

The recent trend of taking action by hashtagging on Twitter or changing Facebook profile pictures, better known as “slacktivism,” has sparked debate over the effectiveness of Internet activism campaigns and how much change can really come out of them.

Most recently, First Lady Michelle Obama received criticism for tweeting a photo of herself with a sign reading “#BringBackOurGirls.” Despite the global spread of the hashtag, many question what it is actually accomplishing.

“People in positions of power, like politicians and celebrities, have the responsibility to set an example for what activism looks like,” senior Jacq Spitzack said. “They have the ability to very publicly and critically engage with issues of justice and resistance, yet most of them do not use their popularity to further justice-oriented agendas.”

Fellow student activist, junior Arielle Amiri, who has been involved with the DePaul Anti-Capitalist Coalition, the Occupy Chicago and NATO protests, agrees that those in positions of power who use online campaigning, like the First Lady, could do more.

“They’re cowards,” Amiri said.

Although using social media to raise awareness of an issue is a “powerful tool,” according to Spitzack, who has been involved with anti-capitalism, gender equality and environmental justice movements, it is only a first step towards change.

“Social mediums can and have been used in very unique and clever ways to further activist agendas and causes,” Spitzack said. “That being said, merely posting, liking, sharing or tweeting an article or post with no thorough knowledge of the issue is not enough to enact social change. There is an action component to mobilizing that cannot be ignored.”

Amiri agrees that online campaigning has its merits.

“(It’s) tricky because there are some amazing activists who can only contribute from a distance, and there are some activists who attend events in person who are there for the spectacle of the event rather than the cause,” Amiri said. “I think ultimately the difference is the dedication to the cause they’re fighting for and how much time they spend thinking of new ways to reach more people and achieve your goal.”

Both Amiri and Spitzack agree that the problem with “slacktivism” arises when using a hashtag or updating a Facebook profile picture are the only actions taken.

“I don’t think posting or sharing things on social media is inherently problematic,” Spitzack said. “The problem arises when people do not take that next step and critically engage with these ideas, whatever that may look like for them.

” DePaul Business Professor Patrick Murphy, Ph.D, who authored “Mutiny and It’s Bounty,” a book centered on the “coordinated defiance of authority structures,” argues that raising awareness through social media is an important step in modernday activist movements.

“Awareness is necessary, but not sufficient for change to occur,” Murphy said. “(Online activism) really can institute change and make real change happen.”

Murphy cites micro-loans and fundraising as successful outlets for online campaigning.

In 2010, the Red Cross raised $5 million in two days following the earthquake in Haiti earthquake through donations made via text message. Additionally, they encouraged people to share information about the earthquake over Twitter, leading to the topic trending for the four days following the event. The presence of the event on Twitter had a direct correlation to how much money was raised.

“You can name a lot of movements and countries where there has been online activism,” Dr. Roberta Garner, a sociology professor at DePaul who has written numerous books on the organization of social movements, said. “The controversy is how effective and how far it goes to really change things.”

Both Murphy and Garner cite the Arab Spring as a critical moment in online activism.

In the week before former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the total rate of tweets about political change in Egypt increased from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. Videos featuring protest and political commentary went viral with the top 23 videos receiving nearly 5.5 million views.

“What the effects were (of the Arab Spring) are not yet very clear,” Garner said. “I think it’s very easy to be caught up in excitement of the Internet community, but a problem with all social movements is that many take a long time in history to unfold. If you judge something too soon, it’s hard to see if it’s going anywhere.”

Garner draws a historical parallel between the Internet and how print sources such as newspapers were used to lay groundwork to build communities in the late 18th century.

“In an online setting, just like thousands of years ago, you want the rest of society to be aware,” Murphy said. “The authority structure in place will either choose to listen or have no choice.”

Murphy believes that social movements on the Internet can reach beyond raising awareness and lead to effective change.

“Today, we have a whole range of new things that people try to champion in regards to people belonging,” Murphy said. “These have more to do with esteem and the dignity of people. When you want to spread awareness to these issues, you need to be more social.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Garner is “skeptical” of the tangible effects of online activism.

“The Internet does raise awareness, and it raises emotion,” Garner said. “But awareness is some distance from mobilization which is some distance from institutional change.”

The disconnect between online activism approaches to mobilizing supporters of a cause to enact change is still unclear to many, thus leading to the “slacktivist” label.

“I think ‘slacktivists’ genuinely care about the matter at hand, enough to minimally challenge their social media peer group, but I also think stepping out of their comfort zone and routine and the work that comes with it is very intimidating for some, so [‘slacktivism’] is a convenient alternative,” Amiri said.

Although she “sees merit to both arguments,” Garner argues that “slacktivism” shouldn’t be associated with laziness, but rather the idealistic avoidance of politics.

“Things never end up in the clearest way you want, but voting is a little better than clicking that you ‘like’ someone’s tweet,” Garner said. “By and large, young people want the country to be different, but if they’re not voting, I don’t think a lot can happen. Ultimately, you have to do more than looking at your computer screen.”

One reason why fewer people are reaching past their screens and physically assembling could be the growing divide between the globalism of issues that people champion and the people themselves.

“If you have weak ties to an issue, if you’re mobilized by someone you’re not strongly tied to, there’s a limit to what your activism can do,” Garner said.

Murphy disagrees, adding that the disassociation allows for more calculated tactics.

“Many people who get involved online are more divorced from the issue,” Murphy said. “When you’re not directly affected, you can be more strategic. Given that it’s online is really not that different than it used to be more with more traditional social movements. Because it’s online though, it’s more contextual.”

Despite the ability of the Internet to build communities and raise awareness, traditional forms of activism still play a pivotal role in enacting change.

“(I) was inspired by the public presence of people that came out for the [Occupy Chicago] events,” Amiri said. “Even though I had already been doing smaller scale activism, I really got hooked by the enormous public presence and wanted to see more people out in the streets.”

Both Amiri and Spitzack agree that activism, whether online or in more traditional forms, is a lifestyle choice.

“To me, (being an activist) means that you are committed to justice in every aspect of your life, including your actions, your words and your daily interactions with others,” Spitzack said. “I find I am most motivated to resist injustices by weaving my activism into my daily existence.”

“Give more time to your cause than retweeting something, or sharing something on Facebook or Instagram,” Amiri added. “Go out of your daily routine to contribute to the fight and constantly ask what the next steps are.”

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‘Slacktivism’ gives impression of impact, but is Internet activism really effective?