Sandy Schumann (PhD) is a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict, and an Affiliated Researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Research Center for Social and Cultural Psychology. She is a PS21 global fellow and tweets @Sandy_Research
How many times have you signed an online petition, “liked” the Facebook page of a non-profit organization, or posted a comment on a website to express your support for a social justice campaign? Owing to the increasing popularity and ubiquity of social media platforms, it seems easier than ever to become involved in civic life (Gil de Zuniga & Valenzuela, 2011). Compared to joining, for instance, a protest in front of the town hall, Internet-based civic participation requires less time and fewer skills or financial resources (Van Aelst & Van Laer, 2010). Online, citizens can engage with social and community issues whenever and from wherever, which drastically reduces opportunity costs. Moreover, civic participation on the Internet is often less risky, and direct confrontations with opposing groups or law enforcement is more easily avoided. Ultimately, individuals who are traditionally less likely to exercise their citizenship might be more inclined to take actions that rely on digital tools or features, particularly young people, or those who do not live in a place where civic activities are organised.
Despite these advantages, some have argued that low-cost and low-risk digital civic engagement is “the new ‘opium for the masses’” (McGarty, Lala, & Douglas, 2010, p. 31) and might dilute meaningful activism (Gladwell, 2010; Morozov, 2009). More precisely, low-threshold digital civic involvement is criticized as slacker-activism or slacktivism (Leonard, 2009); token support that does not contribute tangible means to a cause (Kristofferson, White, & Peloza, 2014). Malcolm Gladwell (2010) stated that “the revolution will not be tweeted” and Evgeny Morozov (2009) considered so-called slacktivist actions as the “ideal form of activism for a lazy generation”. Citizens who participate in civic life through convenient clicks and likes are accused of lacking the commitment of activists who take to the streets. In addition, it has been suggested that quick and easy online activism forecloses enduring civic engagement by making citizens feel good about themselves, satisfying their need to take action (Lee & Hsieh, 2013). This could have detrimental consequences for cause-related or advocacy groups that aim to mobilize supporters online.
The slacktivism critique has been endorsed by drawing on anecdotes of campaigns that resulted—apparently—only in digital attention but not in meaningful, instrumental support. Importantly though, the postulations have not been confirmed in systematic, empirical analyses. On the contrary, contesting the idea of an uncommitted citizen who would only sign an online petition, so-called slacktivist actions seem to be an expression of citizens’ dedication to a cause and a stepping-stone for future civic participation.
Kristofferson and colleagues (2014) showed that students who liked the public Facebook page of a social justice organization were more likely to support the group by also stuffing letters for a fundraising campaign, if they thought that their values aligned with those of the organisation. In our research (Schumann & Klein, 2015) we examined group-based motives of so-called slacktivist actions. Students who endorsed environmental protection were asked to visit the (fictional) website of an advocacy group that promotes biodiversity. Half of the participants only read the website to learn more about the advocacy group and its activities; the other half was also asked to express their support for the advocacy group in a comment that would be posted on the website. In a last step, all participants reported their willingness to join a panel discussion or demonstration on behalf of the environmental group, and they were also given the opportunity to sign a petition.
The results provide a more nuanced perspective on the slacktivism phenomenon. First, we demonstrated indeed that engaging in quick and easy civic activities on the Internet reduced intentions for enduring participation. Participants who had expressed their endorsement of the advocacy group were less inclined to attend the demonstration or panel discussion and were less likely to sign the petition. How can this demobilizing effect be explained? When taking the so-called slacktivist action, students satisfied their need for group-enhancement. That is, they thought that they had contributed substantially to the group by writing the comment, advancing the group’s viability and wellbeing by mobilizing fellow citizens.
In other words, rather than slacking off, citizens appear to consider low-threshold digital civic activities as a meaningful tool, part of the repertoire of contention that enables them to participate in civic life. This conclusion is further endorsed by a survey study that we conducted with supporters of Greenpeace (Schumann & Kavada, 2015). We assessed respondents’ practices on Greenpeace’s social media accounts, websites, and email lists. In addition, citizens indicated their commitment to the organisation as well as intentions to act on behalf of Greenpeace in offline civic actions. The results were striking and contested once more the slacktivism critique. Highly committed respondents were more frequently performing low-cost and low-risk digital civic actions in support of Greenpeace. Moreover, taking so-called slacktivist actions was positively related to—and could possibly promote—future civic engagement offline.
Consequently, the term “slacktivism” seems to be inapt when referring to convenient online activism. Means of engagement and invested resources should not be equated with the (lack of) motivation that is driving the behaviour. Dedicated citizens viewed low-threshold forms of Internet-based civic participation as a viable tactic to attain collective goals. And the low-cost and low-risk digital activities are possibly a stepping-stone towards enduring involvement.
After all, a click is more than just a click.
Watch Sandy Schumann and Anastasia Kavada discuss their research on social media engagement:
Gil de Zúñiga, H. G., & Valenzuela, S. (2011). The mediating path to a stronger citizenship: Online and offline networks, weak ties, and civic engagement. Communication Research, 38, 397-421.
M Gladwell. (2010, October 4). Small Change Why the revolution will not be tweeted [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell
Kristofferson, K., White, K., & Peloza, J. (2014). The nature of slacktivism: How the social observability of an initial act of token support affects subsequent prosocial action. Journal of Consumer Research, 40, 1149-1166.
Lee, Y. H., & Hsieh, G. (2013, April). Does slacktivism hurt activism?: the effects of moral balancing and consistency in online activism. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 811-820). ACM.
C Leonard. (2009, September 1). In Defense of “Slacktivism” [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://bayercenter.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/in-defense-of-slacktivism/
McGarty, C., Lala, G., & Douglas, K. (2010). Opinion-based groups:(Racist) talk and (collective) action on the Internet. In: Z. Birchmeier, B. Deitz-Uhler and G. Stasser (Eds.), Strategic uses of social technology: An interactive perspective of social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
E Morozov. (2009, May 19). The brave new world of slacktivism [Weblog post]. Retrievedfrom http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/05/19/the_brave_new_world_of_slacktivism
Schumann, S. & Kavada, A. (2015). Civic Participation on the Internet: Activism or Slacktivism?. Invited talk at the eCampaigning Forum 2015, 8th April, Oxford, UK.
Schumann, S., & Klein, O. (2015). Substitute or Stepping Stone? Assessing the Impact of Low-threshold Online Collective Actions on Offline Participation, European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 308-322.
Van Laer, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2010). Cyber–protest and civil society: The Internet and action repertoires in social movements. In Y. Jewkes and M. Yar (Eds.), Handbook of Internet crime (pp. 230-254). Cullompto, U.K.: Willan Publishing.
 The required resources depend on citizens’ experience with the Internet and civic participation as well as the political context. For instance, signing an online petition is more risky in restrictive political regimes, and citizens who have never signed a petition will initially need more time to do so.
 KONY2012 is one of the campaigns that raised a lot of criticism. The non-profit organization Invisible Children launched KONY2012 with a video in which they urged citizens to support their work, that is, assisting African communities in the fight against the warlord Joseph Kony. The video went viral within days. According to Invisible Children, it was “the fastest growing viral video of all time. The KONY 2012 film reached 100 million views in 6 days, and 3.7 million people pledged their support for efforts to arrest Joseph Kony“. Notably, and in addition to the impressive digital attention, the campaign resulted in more than $12 million net proceeds (http://files.invisiblechildren.com/annualreport2012/index.html#p=38).