Is Social Media an Effective Form of Activism or Just Slacktivism?

by Sophia Davirro

There’s no doubt that people are pretty fed up with the United States. The current administration has brought to light the country’s problems, many of which have long existed but have really just been unveiled through the current presidency. Because of this, there has been a substantial increase in activism and resistance.

But we can’t talk about activism without talking about the role social media has played in various social movements. For me, social media has been a big influence on my awareness of different issues and current events. Granted, social media is not the only (and certainly not the best) method for getting news, but it has been one way that I can see what people are discussing and debating. For example, I follow various Instagram accounts that have a focus on intersectional feminism, accounts of artists whose work depict issues important to them, and people like actress Gina Rodriguez, who posts #MovementMondays to highlight actors of color every week. Social media is a fairly accessible medium through which individuals can engage in conversation if they are not able to attend marches and protests. And of course, the trending nature of platforms like Twitter has created a whole new type of activism in the form of social media movements that spread virally over the Internet.

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People are jumping on board with these forms of activism, but with this new age of activism comes the skepticism around its true effect. Are these viral movements actually effective in creating concrete social change? Is social media damaging or beneficial to activism? I can’t say there’s one simple answer, but let’s consider some examples.

When I think of recent viral social media movements, #MeToo is one I think of right away. The hashtag spread virally on Twitter and other social media platforms after actress Alyssa Milano wrote a tweet encouraging women to use the hashtag if they have faced some form of sexual harassment or assault to show the magnitude of the problem. The phrase was originally coined by activist Tarana Burke over a decade ago. Everyone was talking about #MeToo, but were there any real steps to start creating change?

Well, as a result of #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein allegations, many women in film created the TIME’S UP movement which has raised more than $16 million for a legal defense fund supporting low-income women gaining justice for sexual harassment and assault.

Now, these efforts are not solely because of social media. In order for these efforts towards changing a larger, systemic issue to occur, hard-working and motivated individuals have worked together and stepped up to make them happen. But people are turning to social media to use their voice and spread their efforts in order to make conversation happen. And I would argue that engaging in these conversations is a big part of how we make change.

Here’s the thing. Yes, passionate individuals are utilizing social media in brilliant ways. But with so many people participating online, this begs the question of whether many are only joining to be a part of a ‘trend’ of appearing socially active. Shown through acts such as adding a frame to a Facebook profile picture in support of a cause, using trending hashtags, or liking an organization’s profile without actively donating time or money, this concept is commonly referred to as “slacktivism.” The idea is that passively contributing online to a cause without actively participating in other ways is easy with social media. We all want to feel good about ourselves, and we all want to feel that we are a part of something. But slacktivism is a major way in which individuals use minimal effort in order to appear aware and “woke.” Being an activist (without actually being one) is a trend now, and this lends itself to bigger problems. When we passively ‘like’ pages or ‘tweet’ hashtags we fail to educate ourselves about the larger systems in place that create the issues we are posting about.

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More so, slacktivism and social media contributes to promoting other ideas like pop feminism and capitalist feminism. Companies put “feminist” on any and every product, and it sells. Celebrity musicians write songs about girl power, and we love it. People post cute feminist aesthetics online and it gets attention. It’s not a bad thing that feminism is trendy. It’s as if the world is finally starting to think of feminism as a good thing. And who doesn’t want to carry around a bag that says “Smash the Patriarchy”? While passive efforts online may not help much, they do have the capacity to encourage the ideas they represent and to motivate individuals who might not have considered activism before to get more involved. But these efforts, like Facebook frames and hashtags, are only a start.

The expansive, continuous, endless stream of social media can be damaging. Hashtags after a tragic event often get lost in a void of other hashtags and disappear after a week or two. At the same time, these qualities are the same reason social media has been a method through which masses of people mobilize, organize, and work together to form larger movements of change. Take the Women’s March, for example. After Trump’s inauguration, Teresa Shook of Hawaii took to Facebook and created an event inviting her friends to march with her in Washington, but soon after, thousands had been added to the event and wanted to attend. In this case, Facebook was the tool that helped organize passionate individuals across the country, creating the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

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Lastly, think about the recent outrage over gun control after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. What could have resulted in the typical and short-lasting social media cycle of thoughts and prayers, a hashtag, and brief debates that go on for a couple of days followed by inaction, ended up causing a much larger conversation than what we have seen in the past with mass shootings. Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have come together over the last couple of weeks to organize protests, speak to the public on TV, and take to Twitter to voice their goals and opinions. When a group of grieving, but passionate students utilize a platform they grew up with to spread their voices, the effect is pretty powerful. It shows that our generation isn’t just obsessed with being on our phones, but that if we have the motivation, we can use the tools of social media for more than meaningless scrolling and snapping.

So after a lot of thinking, I don’t know if social media is inherently good or bad for activism today. Posting on social media in support of different causes isn’t a bad thing. But it’s only a start. The most effective social media movements are those that have a community of people behind them that are motivated by the issues themselves, and not motivated by the desire to get with what’s popular. Using such an influential platform like social media is a powerful way to mobilize people, and we can see that it works. It’s the people that are activists beyond the screen that are effective in creating these movements. But even if, for whatever reason, we are not able to actively participate outside of social media, we may still ward off slacktivism by educating ourselves about the larger issues.

I know that I have learned a lot about the topics I care about from social media. I also recognize that at times, it’s prevented me from doing more. I myself fall into the attractive void of ‘cutesy’ feminism and sharing articles to make myself feel good. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, because I know I’m not alone in this. We can all do better. Social media can do better. But I think that seeing what we can do with such a powerful tool is pretty amazing, and can inspire us to utilize it to its fullest potential.