Slacktivism: The Problem With Social Media Movements

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Slacker + Activism = Slacktivism

I stumbled on to this phrase while doing some research on charities. It sums up much of what I think of many social movements in the 21st century.

Like Kony2012 and #Bringbackourgirls, too many are temporary fads that don’t make any real, lasting impact. Interest spikes for a while, but, after a brief period in the limelight, disappears as quickly as it emerged. The victims are forgotten and the public goes back to life as usual.

Enduring movements are powered by incentives; people need a reason to hop off the sidelines. Why should they care? What can they do to move you closer to your goal and what level of participation is demanded from them? This starts from the top, the folks in charge of a charity or organization that want to effect change.

Part of the problem is that standards for what constitutes effective activism have plummeted, watered down by the ease of access provided by social media and conflation between ‘visibility’ and ‘effectiveness’. If the leaders of a movement are content with just creating waves in social media ponds, with few plans to ever get “boots on the ground”, why should the public go any further?

Dilettantes have their place; leading social movements is not one of them (especially if you are serious about getting anything done).

A trendy hashtag or a few “likes” on social media might make people feel good and demonstrate that a message is being heard, but it doesn’t mean it has created change.

Activism that resides purely in the social media space is the worst kind of low-hanging fruit; take a bite and it falls apart in your hand.

The disenfranchised don’t need armchair revolutionaries. Change agents need to jump in and git-r-done.

Of course, many participate in these causes for ulterior motives—more interested in self-aggrandizement than effecting real change—so those folks pay little mind to how much “good” they have actually generated.

Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which was 2014’s latest “look-at-me” fad in the activist community. Too many people participated with an eye on drawing attention to themselves, completely forgetting that the purpose of the challenge was to donate money. Few people took the time to include information on how others could donate to the cause, let alone sparing a few dollars themselves (athough The ALS Association is not above reproach).

The irony here is how much water was wasted during the life of the challenge, one of the causes-emeritus for social activists. A lot of these same “saints” would wag their fingers at someone who watered their lawn every day, decrying all the “poor kids in Africa who don’t have enough water to drink”.


It reminds me of people who buy a Prius, drink “socially-conscious” coffee, or support other businesses that purport to save the environment—just so they can say they do so. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing these things; it’s the self-righteousness that often comes along with these choices that’s the problem.

It’s a status thing. People wrap themselves in the shroud of certain groups and causes to boost their self-esteem or proclaim superiority over others.

(No, not every act of altruism is phony, but let’s not pretend that some public displays are not borne of ignoble motivations.)

They never miss an opportunity to look down on those who aren’t as vocal or visible in their support as they are. They want to shame you for using plastic bags and shopping at Walmart, while spewing carbon emissions on their way to buy their daily latte.

It’s hypocrisy, really.

Until you move to a third-world country, farm your own land, and donate all your money to the poor, you have zero license to grandstand.

Stop drinking the Kool-Aid; most of this is clever marketing. Until you take a trip to see the folks on the other end of those labels, you don’t know how your money is being spent and whether it advances the causes you believe in. Just because something is labeled “Fair Trade”, doesn’t mean it’s actually supporting struggling farmers abroad. You’re going to pay through the nose for a label that might not even hold water to make yourself feel good and impress other people.

Let your cash do the talking, but make sure it’s actually saying what you want to say.

There’s nothing wrong with altruism, or purchasing goods that advance a social virtue; just understand that you are not saving the world by pledging allegiance to Whole Foods.

Some might respond to these criticisms of 21st century movements by saying, “It’s about awareness. If we reach enough people, that enhances our chances of solving the problem at hand”.

I agree. Awareness and publicity is important.

The problem is too many people stop there.

It’s not enough to just get the word out; people need to follow through on actions that actually make a difference. Have you made a dent in the problem or are you just doing busy work?

So, how can we produce effective public campaigns?

1) Provide clear information on the problem, including reasons why people need to join the cause. Use incentives.

2) Present specific actions for participation that further the cause, including easy access to donation links and support for policies that actually move political and economic levers.

3) Routinely examine strategy and tactics, assessing how much progress has been made and whether the current course of action is appropriate for the scope of the problem. Adjust accordingly.

Is this difficult? Maybe. You may not get as much media love and it’ll require more than a few clicks of a mouse. At least you’ll be doing something that actually makes a difference, instead of pretending to.

I’ve never seen a dictatorship toppled by a trending hashtag or viral video. I’m all for reasoned internet
 vigilantism, but I’m no idealist.

Complex problems require complex solutions.

To be clear, I’m not dogging services like Twitter and Facebook. They serve a purpose and provide benefit to society. I’m refuting the belief that social media popularity is sufficient for effecting real-world change.

Good intentions do not trump results.

“Activism”, by definition, mandates “action”. If it were easy, everyone would do it. People who want to create *actual* change need to set a higher standard for participation.

The world has enough slacktivists.

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