Online activism isn’t just slacktivism

By Carolyn Ali

Raising arms with social media likes icons
Social media can be used for good when online activity is backed up by meaningful action. Photo: iStock and UBC

Beyond simply ‘liking’ a post, experts say social media advocacy can lead to positive, real-life change

It’s easy to click on an online petition or change your profile photo to show support for a cause. The problem is if you do nothing further and believe that you’re helping to advance the movement.

“The word slacktivism gained popularity in the late 1990s to mock the way people were willing to support a cause…as long as it didn’t cost real-life time or money,” write Tanya Lloyd Kyi and Julia Kyi in Better Connected: How Girls Are Using Social Media for Good.

Lloyd Kyi is a UBC Creative Writing lecturer and her daughter, Julia Kyi, is a UBC Political Science student and feminist advocate. Slacktivism, they explain, is a form of performative activism in which people support a cause to make themselves look good.

The authors reference consumer research by UBC Sauder School of Business professor Katherine White. Dr. White’s studies on how and why people support causes suggest that easy and convenient actions can make people feel as if they’ve done their part to support a cause. However, these performative actions aren’t necessarily followed up by meaningful action.

“I do think slacktivism can be a real problem that takes away from advocacy in real life,” says Julia Kyi in an interview. However, she says that being heavily critical of those who are trying to make change online can discourage people from activism altogether.

In Kyi’s experience, women are disproportionately criticized for online activism. “I’ve found that women can be condemned for posting advocacy-related content, while men are praised for the same action.”

Dr. Catherine Corrigall-Brown, who researches social movements and heads UBC’s Sociology Department, says that the term “slacktivism” is deliberately used to dismiss and discredit activists.

“’Slacktivism’ is something that people say to make particularly young people feel like they’re not doing enough, that they’re not as good as the last generation of activists,” she says. In fact, very few people have large amounts of time and resources to devote to a cause. “People lead busy and complicated lives, and to say that everyone else is not doing enough and is a slacker is unnecessarily negative.”

David Tindall, a UBC Sociology professor who studies environmental movements, notes that people signing an online petition might also be working for change in other ways. “It’s only slacktivism when they’re really not doing very much except ‘liking’ a few posts and overestimating the contribution they’ve made to the movement.”

In fact, social media advocacy can be a gateway into activism. Dr. White notes that small acts of slacktivism can, under certain conditions, actually lead to meaningful support, such as when people privately commit to a cause and when their values are highly aligned with that cause.

“Ideally we would critique performative activism while encouraging more activism in real life, and using social media as a tool to facilitate concrete, real-life movements,” says Kyi.

Learn more about actions for change

Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on February 22, 2023. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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