As a borderline millennial/Gen Z individual, I am quite versed in the world of social media, having been introduced to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from as early as 10-years-old. Back then, I mainly used social media to follow my favourite boy bands and have meaningless conversations (“hey” “what’s up” “nothing much” “same”) with my friends whom I had seen at school earlier that day. But once I got older, as I developed into a young environmentalist and social justice advocate, social media became a vital tool and the main conduit for which activism took place. Now, more than ever, I find myself completely immersed in the realm of social media where using hashtags and sharing posts are key forms of activism, no matter the cause.
After living through one heck of an eventful year in 2020, I have reflected a lot on what social media activism really means, and the recurring question I ponder is whether social media activism is actually effective or if it can be counterproductive to its objectives of advancing social and environmental sustainability.
What is Social Media Activism?
Social media activism is a form of advocacy that can include protesting, campaigning, or raising awareness through the use of social media platforms. By using hashtags, online movements can rapidly spread through the world of media, and gain momentum and attention by “trending”, which means becoming one of the top concerns on social media at a given time. But social media activism can often come across as lazy and fake when it is not followed by genuine action, so critics coined a new term for this online facade: “slacktivism”. How do we differentiate between genuine activism on social media platforms and slacktivism?
SOURCE: The Nib
A trend I see amongst my fellow young people on social media is that we each have an “image” that we’ve created of ourselves on our profiles. We are concerned with our aesthetic - what our online presence says about us - and those things are driven by what we post and share on social media. That even applies to people who don’t post anything at all. The silence, unwillingness, or lack of interest in sharing and posting content still upholds a certain image.
I’ll be honest with you, I am completely guilty of slacktivism myself.
What we share and post contributes to and upholds our online reputations by showing what we care about; however, it is all too often that I see people sharing posts that contribute to their identity as an activist, yet it seems that no real action or growth have followed. And isn’t change the main goal of activism? Raising awareness only goes so far before the sharing and posting needs to turn into demonstrating and changing.
I’ll be honest with you, I am completely guilty of slacktivism myself. I have shared plenty of posts on Instagram, adding my own comments encouraging or challenging people to “wake up” to those issues because I support the cause and want to share it, yet sometimes that’s as far as my activism goes. Sometimes I even find myself doing the opposite of what I have shared and advocated for online. I’m sure there have been times when I’ve shared a bunch of posts about the importance of buying local, seasonal produce, and then gone to the store and bought a bag of oranges from Spain. Or perhaps there was a post about a crisis in a developing country that had been circulating through my social media feed and I shared it without actually doing any of the work, like signing the petitions, donating, or educating myself further on the issue at hand.
I was in school this past summer in 2020 and took a literature course that required me to buy 5 novels for the class. Although I tend to be quick to post and share things about boycotting unsustainable corporations, screwing capitalism, and the like, I still somehow ended up ordering all the books I needed on Amazon, which probably came from all over the world and simply put more money in Jeff Bezos’ pocket. I don’t even recall looking at local alternatives beforehand or even asking friends if they had those books that I could borrow. My brain defaulted to searching the books on Amazon and clicking “buy”. Sharing posts on my social media didn’t result in a genuine change in me.
Obviously, no one is perfect and we should all just do what we can. It is not terrible to buy oranges or occasionally buy products on Amazon, as long as you’re doing your best with the resources and capacity that you have. But my point is that my social media image and the environmental and social activist posts that I shared were not followed with genuine change on my part, even though I could easily make those changes. I was not practicing what I preached.
So, can the progress of movements actually be stalled if people are just sharing the content but no one is taking action or actively trying to change? This is how the rise of social media activism can be counterproductive to genuine activism. The act of retweeting a post on Twitter may allow people to feel as though they have done their part and satisfied their “activist duty”, even when no action or transformation has really taken place (me being anti-Amazon online, then buying books on Amazon offline). Maybe my social media activity gave me a sense of fulfillment that allowed me to mentally check off the “activism” box in my mind, giving me more space to make less sustainable choices, given that I had “already done my good for the day”.
We have been living in an online world for a while now, and the global pandemic has only accelerated the extent of online life. As young activists, it may seem harder than ever to do anything beyond the online work. But even during the pandemic, we can take part in both social media activism and activism in our offline lives as well. Online activism needs to be followed by real action that supports those ideas.
Despite all the toxic traits of the social media world, there are still plenty of positive aspects of social media activism.
I wanted to dive deeper into this concern because it’s clear that there are issues with slacktivism, but I know social media activism isn’t all bad - like anything, there are pros and cons. So, how can we embrace the advantages and be wary of the problems?
First, a few of the cons...
Activism on social media can lead to a variety of issues regarding the legitimacy of information that is shared. Not all information online is reliable. Social media is notorious for spreading misinformation because people tend to believe what they want to believe and don’t always fact check the sources.
Social media also drives strong oppositions of “sides” by upholding worldviews. There are issues with confirmation bias, which is just a fancy term explaining how people only see information online that they support and that confirms their beliefs.
Systemic issues with algorithms
On social media there are also behind-the-scenes mechanisms at work called algorithms, which are programs that learn what you like and support from your information, like the accounts you follow, content you like and share, and so on. But algorithms are not unbiased in the slightest. Algorithms ensure that the content you see and hear is content that supports your worldview, and this is dangerous because how can you ever learn the full story when you only ever see your perspective of it? No change can come from this. The walls that separate us from the stuff we don’t want to hear need to be broken down in order for transformation and dialogue to happen.
Speaking of algorithm bias, Instagram and Facebook have been accused of having racist algorithms. And they likely do. Algorithms are programs that are created and controlled by programmers. Take the programmers of Instagram, for example. Those people are working for someone, so who is instructing their work? Who is the head honcho directing orders? The head of Instagram is Adam Mosseri, an American, white man. And prior to him, Instagram was founded by two other American, white men. So… it might be safe to say that some systemic issues are likely embedded in our social media, and they may present issues of oppression by burying and uplifting certain voices in the algorithms.
The mute button and “cancel culture”
The mute button is also alive and well on social media. If posts are circling around that you don’t agree with, you have the choice to simply click one of many buttons to make it all go away - mute, unfollow, report, block. Conflict can easily be avoided, at least by the people who are privileged enough to experience those issues only second hand through media. It’s too easy to shut yourself off from conflicts that you could take part in solving. And this past year, people on social media were muting these issues in a new way through “cancel culture”, where a group of people publicly shamed and ostracized individuals and brands, essentially “cancelling” them from society. But cancelling something is not very productive. We can’t resort to voting people off the island just because we don’t like them. Cancel culture does not allow the necessary space to have conversations and begin transformation.
Lack of real action
And of course, likes and hashtags do not always result in change, actions do. Posts and hashtag movements and sharing can be a wonderful way to spark the flame, but they won’t fuel the wildfire.
Despite all the toxic traits of the social media world, there are still plenty of positive aspects of social media activism.
Messages to movements!
Social media is a strong vessel for raising awareness, and spreading news and messages. Within seconds, ideas can spread across the globe and movements can be started.
Educating and inspiring
Social media platforms have also transformed into spaces where people can learn from one another by listening to each other’s stories. As long as you’re learning from reliable information, there are plenty of online resources to educate ourselves on certain topics. Social media can be a wonderful place to spark ideas and gain inspiration!
Online, people can network, establish meaningful relationships, and join together in solidarity across the world with others who believe in a common purpose.
Fundraising or gaining support on petitions for causes have never been easier. Think about how much change and awakening have come from the Black Lives Matter movement across all media platforms. Or Greta Thunberg’s social media activism with her weekly photos of her climate strike.
Overall, social media activism is not a bad thing, but it can potentially be counterproductive to activist movements and present barriers to change if it turns into slacktivism, when the online work is not followed with offline work.
Conducting Genuine Online Activism
My reflection and research on this topic have allowed me to compile a list of simple actions that I believe we can do to avoid slacktivism and make sure our activism efforts are genuine and productive. And going forward, I aim to follow all of these pieces of advice to improve my own activism and make it meaningful.
Be mindful. Try not to share posts blindly. Read and understand what you’re sharing before you do so. Make sure you ask yourself whether you’re sharing that post for the greater purpose of progressing the cause or simply upholding your image.
Follow with action and show the world. Do more than the act of sharing and posting - take actions and make changes in your own life to reflect that you genuinely support the causes you share. And show those actions on your social media! That is the beauty of social media activism - you can inspire others with your own personal experiences and contributions!
Take advice from more experienced activists. Talk to an activist that made change before the age of social media. You may learn some valuable lessons from them.
Have conversations. Talk to your friends and family and others who don’t agree with you. Try to have those difficult conversations in order to plant seeds in their mind and inspire them.
Educate yourself. If you don’t have the capacity to take action in your life, then take time to educate yourself. Mental changes are just as important as physical ones. Learn about all perspectives, read other people’s stories, do research. Reflect, journal, and ponder. These are all exercises and activities that will support your activism and make it meaningful.
Ask questions. Pause and ask yourself questions while undertaking social media activism - does this align with my moral compass and internal purpose? How can I advocate for change in those areas on social media and in my own life?
Be authentic and be honest. Remember - no one is the perfect activist ; there is no one right way to do activism. Find what works for you and roll with it. Do the work, but remember to take care of yourself too. We all still need time to rest and recharge when fighting for a better world.
What do you think? Is social media activism an effective tool for making positive change, or is it a barrier? I don’t think there is a simple answer. Activism on social media is definitely a catalyst for change and a first step towards transformation, but we, as online activists, need to be aware of slacktivism and the systemic issues within social media. At the end of the day, the goal is to be a better version of you and to keep doing good in the world on screen and off screen. So, what are you doing off screen to support your activism that your followers might not see?
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