Exploring the effects of ‘Slacktivism”

You get out of your classes for the day, return to your room, lie down on the bed with your Macbook and get on Facebook. Scrolling down the screen a bit, a video on your newsfeed catches your eye. After three minutes and fifteen seconds of learning about the newest social controversy, you like the video, repost it to your status, and continue perusing the Internet.

This process refers to the recent trend of “slacktivism,” a combination of slacker and activism. According to Sarah Kendzior, a PhD working in Washington University’s anthropology department who has been researching the rise of “slacktivism,” social media has allowed people to interact with each other and participate in social dialogues in an increasingly direct way.

“You would see a bumper sticker on a car, but you wouldn’t necessarily talk to the person in the car to find out why they support that cause,” Kendzior explained. “But now you can. That is the key difference.”

According to Kendzior’s recently published article in Qatar-based news site Al Jazeera, “slacktivism, often used as a pejorative code word for digital activism, is not a philosophy—it is a process, varying not only within the cause but within the supporter.” The most salient example of this newly minted term is the recent attention the Kony 2012 campaign received.

Directed by Jason Russell, the founder of the non-profit organization, Invisible Children Inc., “Kony 2012” attempts to raise awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of Uganda’s guerilla group, Lord’s Resistance Army. He is also the International Criminal Court’s most wanted criminal because of his killing and abduction of more than 1 million African children.

First published on YouTube on March 5, this 30-minute video was viewed by more than 50 million people within five days. More than a month later, the video has received more than 88 million views on YouTube, 17 million views on Vimeo and more than 90,000 followers on Facebook. While Kony 2012 has been deemed one of the most viral videos of all time, its real-world contributions have been somewhat unclear.

“Realistically, there is little you and I can do. It is unfortunate, but it is just the reality of it,” Kendzior said. “People feel frustrated. They want to help, so they look for ways to help, and then there is this video saying, ‘Here it is. You like it. You share it.’ It satisfies people’s urgency, but we should be more creative in how to use the Internet to engage with people in these regions instead of engaging with them by speaking for them.”

As social media’s prevalence increases each day, people tend to judge others based on their liked pages, videos and links. Whether these online profiles are accurate representations of their account holders remains dubious. Kendzior proffered a personal example of the ambiguity behind interpreting someone from his Facebook page or Twitter account. Kendzior liked Uzbekistan’s activist group on Facebook because she passionate about it. However, she noticed something strange when the group members invited her sister, who knew nothing about Uzbekistan, to like the cause as well.

“We both liked the cause. So on the surface, maybe it looks like we are both slacktivists or dedicated Uzbek activists. But, in reality, one of them was [an activist], and the other one was like ‘Oh, yeah sure. What the hell?’” Kendzior added. “You really cannot tell by looking at the media what somebody’s intention or motivation is.”

Although “Kony 2012” initially received millions of shares and likes, controversy regarding the video’s director Jason Russell, who recently appeared scantily clad and yelling in a San Diego street, redirected followers’ attention. It appeared that many of these slacktivists became more interested in watching Russell embarrass himself in public rather than increasing awareness of the notorious Ugandan leader. The video of Jason Russell received higher view counts than the Kony sequel, questioning people’s sincerity and loyalty to the cause in the first place. After all, where did the millions of impassioned likes and shares go? The video’s fleeting popularity attests to the rise of slacktivism.

“The movement has gone down to such a degree after the initial burst of support that there might not really be a sustained interest in this topic,” Kendzior said.

Junior Joshua Kim, one of the millions who watched the Kony 2012 video, agreed with Kendzior’s ideas of slacktivism.

“While the movement [Kony 2012] showcased the wide-reaching influence of social media on millions of web users around the world, it is still lacking in its capacity to substantially change people’s hearts or alter the course of history,” Kim said. “But it is only human nature to be detached to something that is happening across the sea. Regardless of what means may be used in the future, it will be [near] impossible to achieve humanitarian goals of the scale that ‘Kony 2012’ suggested.”

In contrast to the Kony 2012 phenomenon, the hype surrounding Trayvon Martin reflects a more effective type of “slacktivism.” The case of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old who was shot by crime-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, attracted national attention and has triggered a heated debate about race and social injustice across the nation.

“For Travyon Martin, people wanted something very specific,” Kendzior said. “They wanted George Zimmerman to be charged. That is something that was very unique to the people involved and could feasibly happen. People have been trying to catch Kony for a long time, and it is a very difficult thing, and I am not sure that the increased awareness of what he is doing will lead to his capture.”

While Kendzior is skeptical about the effectiveness of certain types of “slacktivism,” she believes that social media can have positive contributions.

“It could be that the Kony video can introduce people to the cause,” Kendzior said. “Hopefully, people become more educated and read more about it. The more people who do know about something, the likelier it is that someone will be creative and come up with a solution or at least a new way to help and understand the issue. When it’s successful, people stop calling it ‘slacktivsim.’ They start calling it activism.”

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