Cyberactivism, Its Past and Its Future | Elizabeth Sherer

There is always that one overly-political Facebook friend who spams the site with incessant posts about the same issue, relentlessly reminding others how little they care about said user’s opinion. This friend or follower is frustrating, even annoying, and all social media users have one. But perhaps this user deserves some respect, both for being a dedicated advocate and for attempting to take advantage of the benefits of digital technology to activism, of which there are many.

It is not difficult to understand how the Internet can help movements for change reach broader audiences and start important conversations without the traditional limits of geographic distance. Cyberactivism, as it has come to be known, is considered an important component of modern activist movements. But some scholars have argued that high-speed communication and technology also present new challenges for activism. These authors often point to slacktivism—a sort of lazy and phony form of activism that appears on social media in the form of likes, shares or follows—as an inevitable obstacle that activists attempting to use these technologies must overcome. These are the kinds of issues that one must consider in evaluating the success of cyberactivism and specific online activist campaigns. In this context, “success” is defined as either social (behavioral) or policy (legislative) change in society, with the most successful campaigns accomplishing both. Some consideration will also be given to the value of awareness-raising in activism, particularly on social media networks.

Fortunately, cyberactivism on social media does not necessarily indicate or entice the presence of slacktivists, or users who participate in acts of slacktivism. Evidence supporting this conclusion can be found in both exclusively online activist campaigns as well as powerful, historical activist movements that have begun to use digital tools to organize. Further, while the idea of “raising awareness” has been mocked and frequently associated with slacktivism, both in the literature about Internet activism and in popular culture, these assumptions are naïve and have been proven incorrect in online activist campaigns—that is, raising awareness is still significant. The two preceding claims can be supported by examining campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the feminist campaign Bye Felipe, and Greenpeace’s Greenwire, a new kind of social media site intended to engage environmental activists. In bringing together these three case studies, it becomes clear that activism on social media networks is a legitimate political effort and will continue to play a significant role in modern activist movements. And yet the physical aspects of activism, like protests and other acts of civic engagement such as voting, are still essential to produce the most effective activist campaigns, and particularly those that will be seen to bring about lasting societal change. Slacktivism contributes to this truth, and it is important to analyze the role it might play in future online activist campaigns in order to take advantage of the potential of cyberactivism and evade its limitations.

A minority cannot be protected from oppression if the majority does not understand that that oppression or abuse is occurring.

In her article “Can Social Network Sites Enable Political Action?” well-known social media theorist danah boyd argues, “Although the Internet makes it a lot easier for activated people to seek out information and networks of like minds, what gains traction online is the least common denominator” (boyd 243). boyd goes on to argue that what is popular on social media reflects the interests and passions of the Internet and even society as a whole. She believes that the ineffectiveness of these sites to promote change is just evidence that society does not really care about making change (241-44). Fortunately, boyd’s pessimistic view can be dismissed just as easily as she dismisses the potential of cyberactivism. She has made a glaring error in her analysis of social media and cyberactivism, and it is clear that she has not considered the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

In summer 2014, a campaign began spreading rapidly on Facebook in the form of videos and statuses with the hashtag: #ALSIceBucketChallenge. These posts often consisted of a video of a participant thanking someone for nominating them for the challenge, completing the challenge by dumping a bucket of ice water on their head, and then nominating another two or three people to either complete the challenge and post their own video as proof or to donate $100 to the ALS Association to support research for the disease. If boyd is correct that “embarrassing videos and body fluid jokes fare much better than serious critiques of power” on social media, she failed to consider the possibility of an embarrassing video with a philanthropic motive (243).

Kristofferson et al seem to agree with boyd that slacktivism is a real problem and that it hinders the success of activist campaigns and advocacy groups in soliciting what they call “meaningful support” for a cause. This “meaningful support” would consist of “donating money and volunteering time and skills,” but the authors do not believe that activities like promoting a cause on Facebook encourage social media users to take these more significant actions (Kristofferson et al 1150). They argue that any increase in the “social observability” of acts of support for social change, like that of likes or shares online, can actually inhibit participants from taking further action to support a cause because it satisfies their desire to seem generous, engaged, or otherwise honorable and they quickly move on (1163).

Again, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge provides an example that contradicts the findings of research on cyberactivism; according to the ALS Association, the organization has raised $115 million since July 2014 (“The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”). Certainly this impressive figure qualifies for the authors as “meaningful support,” and certainly the amount of money raised demonstrates the success of the campaign. And yet this kind of activism seems very conducive to the researchers’ proposed problem of “social observability;” to complete the challenge was either to show one’s entire Facebook friend list that they dumped a bucket of water on their head or promise those friends that they donated $100 to the cause. What about this campaign allowed the movement to overcome the slacktivism and false support that Kristofferson and his team observed in their study? Or would it be better to conclude that all hope is not lost, and that these authors’ concerns about slacktivism might not be completely justified? The organizers responsible for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge must have known something that boyd and Kristofferson and his team did not.

This is not to say that the Ice Bucket Challenge did not have some problems. The campaign was critiqued for being disengaged, entirely focused on a “first-world” cause and insensitive to the problems of drought and access to clean water that plague so many other parts of the world as “activists” in the West dumped buckets of precious, potable water on their heads. One particularly angry blogger wrote this about the Challenge: “So here we are, 31,000,000 raised in a month, and 3.1 MILLION gallons of water… WASTED. For what? A disease that, albeit serious, affects a pitiful 30,000 at any one time… 171 helpless children die EVERY HOUR because they don’t have CLEAN water to drink” (Lyle). The author’s bold font and capital letters are left intact to reinforce the seriousness of his frustration and concerns.

It’s difficult to disprove these criticisms; just this fall, West Africa was ravaged by an entirely different and arguably more dangerous disease, and it seems prudent to ask why the Ebola Ice Bucket Challenge was never trending during this tragedy. But what’s important in an analysis of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in the context of cyberactivism is that this exclusively online campaign succeeded in raising both awareness about ALS and money for research on the disease, and its achievements seem to have surpassed many initial expectations. Facebook users accepted the challenge posed both by the cold water and the slacktivism that might have tempted them to evade their friends’ nominations. This example surely demonstrates that slacktivism in digital activism is not always unavoidable.

A rare, positive reflection on slacktivism comes from Max Halupka, in his piece entitled “Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic.” In this work, the author presents a nontraditional perspective on the definition and significance of slacktivism, which he calls “clicktivism.” The author argues that slacktivism does not deserve to be portrayed in such a negative light in contemporary discourse, and says that things like changing a Facebook profile picture to support a cause or using the site’s “like” button demonstrate genuine political engagement (Halupka 116). Halupka’s more progressive and optimistic take on slacktivism is refreshing. It is easy to criticize  millennials for being increasingly narcissistic and unable to maintain meaningful relationships, as social media theorist Sherry Turkle and her contemporaries argue. It is also tempting to think of this group as disengaged and generally apathetic; it is no surprise that selfish people are also lazy. And yet, just as rival theorist Zeynep Tufekci begs the public (and Turkle) to stop blaming social media and digital technologies for the world’s problems, it is important to think more broadly (and optimistically!) about what slacktivism might mean. Halupka, then proves important in his ability to consider the bigger picture, and reminds readers that it’s probably unwise, and certainly unfair, “to disregard such emerging forms of participation because they are at odds with long-held notions of what constitutes meaningful engagement” (117).

To take Halupka’s point even further, it is worthwhile to consider the possibility that likes matter. The literature has been bombarded with arguments that social media is dangerous to self-esteem because of its implications for any given user’s self-worth. People care about what other people like, follow, and generally support on social media, and as simple as likes, comments and retweets might be, they are taken seriously in many ways. It is clear that, in direct contrast to boyd’s argument in 2008, activism and causes can gain traction on social media sites. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, was trending on Facebook for weeks in the summer of 2014, and the campaign made real and lasting change even despite its problematic use of clean water.

An even more compelling way to think about the kinds of acts Halupka is describing is to consider raising awareness. On the small scale of an individual social media user, acts of “clicktivism” certainly matter. But slacktivism is still problematic in terms of encouraging real societal and legislative progress—Facebook “likes” and synchronized profile pictures alone cannot do this, and Halupka’s work does not disprove this point (117). Here it becomes worthwhile to consider the idea of “raising awareness” as a component of Internet activism, and to distinguish between awareness-raising and slacktivism.

Bye Felipe, a campaign that was born in October 2014, was created as an outlet for feminists and frustrated online daters who have received derogatory or generally offensive messages to publicly shame the men sending them. Its creator, Alexandra Tweten, says that she simply collects and posts images of misogynistic or otherwise abusive conversations that women have sent her revealing their worst experiences with online dating sites like OkCupid and Tinder (Khazan). In less than two months of existence, the campaign’s Instagram has gotten 278,000 followers and its Facebook page has collected over 12,000 likes.

[I]f it can overcome slacktivists and “activate unmotivated groups,” cyberactivism could reach its full potential.

And while articles like the one in The Atlantic referenced here, along with a segment on the talk show Good Morning America, have helped Bye Felipe gain attention, its fair to question the potential of this project and how it can continue to develop. According to a blog post written by Tweten, many people have been wondering where this campaign might go, and how it might help to solve the issue of the harassment of women who use online dating sites. In answer to this query, Tweten wrote, “Censoring these messages may help in the short term, but the messages featured on Bye Felipe are like an immortalized version of the catcalls and threats women receive on the street every day, just walking around and existing. Until we change the cultural atmosphere, women will continue to receive these hurtful messages online and in real life” (Tweten). Here, the campaign’s own creator confesses that her project might not be successful in actually creating real social change, because the issue she meant to highlight in developing Bye Felipe is greater than just the offensive messages her subscribers are receiving on dating websites. She believes that this online harassment is just one component of the bigger problem that is the oppression of women in our culture as a whole, and that this oppression does not exist exclusively in the digital realm.

In first reading Tweten’s explanation, it seems that even the creator of a platform for cyberactivism reinforces theorists’ thoughts about slacktivism. By dismissing the instances of online harassment she posts as “a symptom of a larger problem,” she fails to demand her followers to channel their frustration into meaningful action or further forms of activism to challenge the bigger issue. It would have been more productive if Tweten had explained that this was her opinion, and then suggested ways for Bye Felipe’s supporters to do further research or share the cause with fellow victims of cyber harassment.

And yet, surely this blog post and the opinion of Bye Felipe’s creator do not render the campaign obsolete. Again, the project continues to grow in popularity and publicity, and sharing the message that online daters are experiencing these hurtful interactions creates some kind of progress. This is where the idea of awareness-raising can find meaning, even if the concept has been dismissed as unimportant in much of contemporary conversation. The 86 women who have shared their personal experiences with Tweten and her followers are not slacktivists without any real interest in correcting this horrific problem; they have been the victims of aggressive harassment. They are not “leveraging (Instagram) as a spamming device,” as boyd describes activists’ use of social media platforms; users willingly choose to follow the account (boyd 242). Nor could they be attempting to promote their own progressivism by submitting these photos, as Kristofferson and his colleagues might suggest, because their identities remain anonymous, as do the harassers’. Instead, they are contributing what Halupka would call “meaningful engagement” with the issues of sexism and abuse by participating in a campaign to raise awareness about the complexity and continuity of this problem.

Thus it is reasonable to consider awareness-raising is a component of real change just as much as organizing or participating in a physical protest would be. A minority cannot be protected from oppression if the majority does not understand that that oppression or abuse is occurring. If enough people become conscious of and concerned by the harassment women are still facing in a society where people of all genders are supposed to be treated equally, a more traditional activist movement will ensue to change the culture that promotes this abuse. To truly transform the way men interact with women, or even to create policy change and encourage law enforcement to consider this kind of digital harassment punishable by law, Bye Felipe would need to grow beyond an Instagram account and a Facebook page. Still, the project can serve as evidence that awareness-raising and slacktivism on social media are different concepts, and that the former plays a real and consequential role in both cyberactivism and activism more broadly.

A third and final example of cyberactivism and its implications comes in the form of Greenpeace Greenwire, a pioneer social media network designed specifically for environmental activists to come together in an online space. Greenwire’s “About” page guides activists on how to use the site: “Search and join a group that is based in your community or a group that is based on a common interest you share with others…Use these groups to meet new activists, learn best practices, share experiences, and plan events and actions to volunteer offline” (“About Greenpeace Greenwire USA”). The Greenwire homepage can be found by clicking the “Volunteer” button on Greenpeace’s main website, greenpeace.org.

Significantly, Greenwire is not a site that is intended to bring all of Greenpeace’s advocacy work online. Actually, as its description indicates, the site is meant to form groups and communities online that will eventually come together to take offline action. This is a decades-old campaign for environmental protection that has begun to develop a new networking and outreach tool by creating a digital space exclusively for people passionate about protecting the planet. The point, it seems, is not necessarily to inform typical social media users about campaigns for environmental protection, as those logging in to Greenwire have not typically discovered the site on Facebook or other traditional social networks. Rather, the creators of Greenwire intended to provide a space for existing activists to come together, form a community, and have meaningful conversations online, inspiring one another to continue their work for policies that promote environmental preservation “IRL”—or in real life—via civic engagement, civil disobedience and other traditional forms of activism.

It is noteworthy that both boyd and Kristofferson and his team point out the importance of engaging the appropriate group of people in order to make cyberactivism, and all movements for change, truly effective. boyd still believes that social media is a powerful tool to disseminate information, and that if it can overcome slacktivists and “activate unmotivated groups,” cyberactivism could reach its full potential (boyd 244). Kristofferson and his colleagues found in their study that identifying or promoting “value alignment between supporter and cause” encourages people to make more significant contributions to activist causes, and thus targeting the right audience can combat slacktivism (Kristofferson et al 1163). In considering further cases of online activism, it will become clear that overcoming slacktivism is not a hopeless cause. Perhaps traditional forms of social media can still be used for their ability to spread information, and thus utilized to capture the attention of potential activists (those whose values already align with a particular cause, as Kristofferson and his team propose) through subtle posts on Facebook or Twitter. Then, anyone truly interested in participating in a campaign or activist movement could be directed to a place like Greenwire. There, the new activist will be exposed to highly engaged and motivated activists and will not be tempted by slacktivism. In this way, both traditional and innovative forms of social media can be used together to make cyberactivism a real and powerful tool for achieving societal change.

Additional support for the development and utility of activist-intended sites like Greenpeace Greenwire is found in responses from current social media users asked to reflect on their civic engagement and the presence of activism on their own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Contributors reported that crusading for change on traditional social media sites was often frustrating and off-putting, and they felt that providing spaces with the specific intention of engaging activists would be more productive and beneficial for both the activists themselves and their generally disinterested Facebook friends. Perhaps in redirecting some of these hyperactive social media activists to separate spaces where they can interact with like-minded people, more traditional or moderate social media users would be less offended by occasional instances of cyberactivism, like campaigns intended solely to raise awareness about new movements and not necessarily calling for their participation in marches or fundraisers that might seem too demanding for those who wouldn’t otherwise consider themselves activists.

So, what is next for cyberactivism? It is important to be creative and innovative in considering the best ways to use social media sites to promote social change movements, due in part to the dangers of slacktivism that appear in online activist campaigns. Then again, an analysis of several activist movement case studies proves that slacktivism is not omnipresent in cyberactivism, nor does it deem online campaigns fruitless. Further, while some might consider raising awareness alone to be a component of slacktivism, there are times when simply informing people about an issue is crucial and should not be undermined. Finally, cyberactivists should take advantage of new forms of social media and consider building digital spaces intended exclusively for activists to meet and interact, because these kinds of sites have the potential to separate those campaigns meant to engage the general public and raise awareness from those that require organized participation in activism offline. Distinguishing between these two different types of networks would cater to the interests of political and nonpolitical social media users and make both varieties of cyberactivism more effective.

Works Cited

“About Greenpeace Greenwire USA.” Greenpeace Greenwire USA. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Boyd, Danah. “Can Social Network Sites Enable Political Action?” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 4.2 (2008): 241-44.

Halupka, Max. “Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic.” Policy & Internet 6.2 (June 2014): 115-32.

Khazan, Olga. “Rise of the Feminist Tinder-Creep-Busting Web Vigilante.” The Atlantic. 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Kristofferson, Kirk, Katherine White, and John Peloza. “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research 40.6 (April 2014): 1149-66.

Lyle, Dustin. “ALS And Your Priorities.” The Mind of Dustin Lyle. 23 Aug. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

“The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” The ALS Association. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Tweten, Alexandra. “Why I Created Bye Felipe.” Ms. Magazine Blog. 31 Oct. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Context Links

An analysis of “slacktivism” from women’s rights leader (and Richmonder) Shannon Fisher

A fascinating piece on how Tumblr is changing online activism

Praise for “clicktivism” from UNICEF U.S. Fund President Caryl Stern

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Elizabeth Sherer is a senior at UR majoring in Leadership Studies. As an environmentalist and human rights advocate, she believes in the power of grassroots movements to enact social change. She was thankful to have had the opportunity to study the relationship between digital technologies and activism in Dr. Rosatelli’s Digital America course. Upon graduation, Elizabeth will continue to fight the good fight.

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