Rise of the slacktivists

In March of 2012, a YouTube video titled “KONY 2012” caught the attention of 100 million viewers within a week. It focused on the atrocities committed by one of Africa’s most violent warlords. The following March, more than three million Facebook users changed their profile pictures to red equal signs to demonstrate support for marriage equality. Just three hours after the jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case was released in November 2014, 3.5 million hashtags involving Ferguson were published, including “#blacklivesmatter” and “#justiceforMikeBrown.”

All of these trends had one thing in common – they were fueled by social media.

In America alone, 56% of the population uses social media daily, and this percentage is consistently increasing, according to marketing sites like Convinceandconvert.com.

After Facebook users "like" a status, page, or photo, what happens next?Creative Commons license.
After Facebook users “like” a status, page, or photo, what happens next?Creative Commons license.

With technology so prevalent today, citizens around the world are inevitably influenced by posts on social media. Cue organizations like Invisible Children (creator of the Kony video) and The Human Rights Campaign for Marriage Equality.

Easy access to such a broad spectrum of web users has set the stage for these organizations to plaster posts, pages, and pictures related to their causes all over the Internet. Social media users then flock to like a post, join a page, or share a picture that will make them feel that they’ve done their “good deed” for the day. But what happens after that like, post, or share?

Most people will stop there, believing that they’ve played a role in raising awareness for a deserving cause. A term was recently coined for this phenomena that is typically used in reference to millennials: “slacktivism.”

While these types of actions on social media may result in increased awareness that there is a problem in need of solution, many will fail to ask the follow-up questions that will create further understanding or spark real change. When did this situation begin? Why is this problem occurring? And most importantly, how can I make a difference? Without answering such questions, people who once shared, liked, and posted about an issue, lose interest and the light on the situation begins to dim.   

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After the initial rush of support for KONY 2012 rapidly decreased, such “slacktivism” received criticism like this. Creative Commons license.

After the initial rush of publicity that the KONY video received in the wake of its spread across the Internet and following the flood of “Cover the Night” pictures, Kony became one of the many popular trends that rapidly faded. How many people became active members of the numerous NGOs – like Invisible Children – that raise money and conduct service trips to Africa for refugees?

When several members of the SAS KONY Facebook page were asked if they thought KONY was still kidnapping children in Sudan, they replied no. Today, the Washington Post reports that Joseph Kony’s path of destruction in Africa hasn’t diminished like its presence on social media has, and there are currently around 100 U.S. troops stationed there in hopes of bringing him to justice.      

Out of the millions of Facebook users who changed their profile pictures to red equal signs in an effort to show support for marriage equality, the attendance statistics for gay pride events in the U.S. shows that only about half of these users in the same year. How many actually wrote letters to politicians demanding changes in marriage laws?

The support shown by those who contributed to the number of posts consisting of #blacklivesmatter or #justiceforMikeBrown was nice in theory, but it didn’t have much effect on those African American families who have in fact lost loved ones due to injustice.  Only a fraction of the authors of those posts participated in protests across the country, an even smaller fraction attempted to directly contact leaders with influence in the justice department.

It’s easy to take five seconds out of your day to like, share, or post about some problem that looks like it’s in need of attention, and in this day and age convenience is key. It’s harder to step away from the computer screen and put our voices and resources to use in an effort to have a direct, positive impact on an issue and understand why it matters. We are a generation with the resources to reverse a lot of the world’s current major crises, but we can’t rely on “slacktivism” to do this for us.   

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