Be it online or offline, successful citizen movements are approached through careful planning and foresight, and not merely by paying lip service to popular imaginings of protest campaigns, says Jillian C York.
Digital activism—that is, collective action tactics conducted online—has often been derided as “slacktivism.” The premise is simple: “Armchair activists,” those too lazy to take to the streets to protest, click the Facebook “like” button or re-tweet something, assuming their mere approval, or sharing of content, will have a real impact. The slacktivist is assumed to contribute minimal effort to a cause, to take undeserved pride in his minimal accomplishment.
It’s certainly true that some online actions, when unaccompanied by strategic vision, are the very definition of slacktivism. But the term has become overused, thrown at anyone who raises a voice instead of a picket sign. We discard online action as useless while simultaneously feeling nostalgia for the tools of our predecessors: the leaflet, the cassette tape, the samizdat.
Last year in Egypt the world watched, stunned, as a city, then a country rose up against the twenty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, what the world saw was a mass of humans converging upon a city square in protest. But what they missed was everything else: Offline actions—such as labor strikes—and online ones, such as the years of collective blogging about police brutality, torture, and other human rights violations. The online actions in particular served a dual purpose: They raised awareness amongst a certain subset of the population, certainly, but perhaps more importantly, they confirmed for many what they always knew but couldn’t talk about.
When expression is stifled, either by government censorship or self-censorship, what often occurs is a phenomena known as “pluralistic ignorance,” a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume that others accept it. The lack of public opposition to Mubarak may have left many activists feeling as though ousting him was impossible; it was only when they were able to come together—both through online communities and offline ones—that they were able to see how widespread their beliefs were.
On the blog of Egyptian activist Hossam Hamalawy, there reads a quote: “In a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.” In Egypt, this was certainly true. It took years of writing, organizing, and yes, activities deemed by many to be “slacktivism” to reach the beginnings of revolution.
It has also proven to be true elsewhere: In Tunisia, where in the mainstream media’s absence, the mere act of blogging enabled activists to gain global support for their cause, perhaps even sparking a domino effect throughout the region. In Sudan, where weeks of offline protest would have gone ignored had it not been for the Twitterati of Khartoum, who ensured with their tweets that their government’s crackdown didn’t go unnoticed. In Pakistan, where global organizing—most of which took place through online channels—defeated government plans to install a large-scale online censorship system. Similarly, in the United States, the “blackout” of dozens of websites to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) got enough attention—and enough people to pick up the phone and call their elected officials—that the bill was ultimately quashed.
But these examples all have something in common: They were all pushed ahead by dedicated groups and individuals who knew how to rally support for their causes. Indeed, a Georgetown University study published in 2011 looked at American interactions with online activism and found that those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their “offline” counterparts to volunteer and participate in events.
There are, of course, plenty of counter examples as well. One prominent one is the early 2012 release of the STOP KONY 2012 campaign, in which a group of naive young Americans promised that watching and sharing their video would somehow enable them to capture Joseph Kony—a worthy target for sure—by the end of the year. Similarly, the “Save Darfur” campaign—which spent millions of dollars on PR alone and has been criticized for having minimal impact on the ground—relied upon selling ubiquitous green bracelets in the hopes that “raising awareness” would be enough to solve a problem.
The right conclusion, then, is not that online activism is inherently “slacktivism” (nor is offline action inherently effective). Rather, it is that a mere click of a mouse here or there, without any focus to a particular cause, is the online equivalent of throwing a few quarters in a donation jar, wearing a bracelet, or marching once in a rally and calling yourself an “activist.” The problem is not, however, the medium; as it has been demonstrated time and time again, online action coupled with strategic vision works.