Is it fair to suggest that all online activism is performative?
The term “slacktivism” is defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions characterised as involving very little effort or commitment” with “the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement”. Wikipedia details that the actions involved “may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed”, however, goes on to say that the assumptions that underlie the term have been found by “empirical investigation” to be untrue.
So, what is it: does online activism simply function as a cheap box-ticking exercise that falsely exaggerates a person’s commitment to a cause, or is there value in this new form of activism? Also described as “arm-chair activism”, does the lack of personal risk involved in online campaigning devalue its efforts? Does change actually arise from retweeting, Instagram story sharing or petition signing, or is this entirely performative? Slacktivism is undeniably less radical than in-person protesting, however, I believe its benefits shouldn’t be overlooked just because of their subtlety.
It’s true that slacktivism is far more performative that other on-the-ground types of campaigning, for the very reason that almost everything we do on social media is performative. The purpose of social media, on a superficial level, is to curate and market a version of yourself to all your followers or friends, to share selected parts of your life with them virtually when you can’t in person. The control we have over what parts of ourselves are visible or kept hidden means that everything we do choose to show has a certain level of thought behind it. There is an awareness that some, if not all, of your followers will see what you promote on your social media and make a judgement on that, however small. So, when we choose to retweet, or share things to our stories, or make posts on Instagram, we do this with the realisation that an audience is present, perpetually spectating.
It follows that, with an ever-present congregation, there is a certain level of peer pressure that permeates into our online mindset and influences the types of things we share or post about. This was seen with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd, in Summer 2020: everyone, myself included, started posting everything we saw about racial inequality, without, on the whole, doing the research necessary to fully understand the essence of the ongoing injustice. Is this necessarily a bad thing? I think that social media at that point had a cumulative effect: as more people shared things to their stories, more people spoke out, and the message spread further afield. I saw people posting whose Instagram accounts I had assumed were long dead, and conversations were being had within friend circles I had never considered would dedicate hours to serious discussion. Was a lot of this performative? Yes, probably; social media likely led a lot of us to convince ourselves that we were more educated on the subject than we were. Did it spark national change? Not immediately. Did it cause reflection at an individual level? Most definitely. Did it help educate, however superficially, more people? 100%. For however many people that hastily shared infographics to then return to whatever they were doing half an hour before, with any remnant of social justice fermenting within them, one or two more people would be educated further. Black squares and infographic posts won’t change the world at a national policy level, but perhaps the infiltration of normal people at ground level isn’t necessarily invalid? Laws won’t automatically change individual attitudes, but education might. Both are needed, obviously, but perhaps we shouldn’t discount online culture quite so readily.
Is there any coincidence that the most “woke” generation yet is also the most social media-savvy? As much as it can be hard to distinguish between a true activist and a “slacktivist”, the subtly changing attitudes in younger generations, with school students being increasingly more clued up on social justice issues, are evidence to the fact that slacktivism does work – however slowly. It doesn’t create the mass change that frontline activism does, but maybe seeing our close friends sharing links to petitions and campaign pages is more resonant than watching protests from afar on TV?
“Slacktivism” shouldn’t be where our work ends, but its qualities of being both easily accessible by many, as well as incredibly far-reaching, shouldn’t be undermined. Social media has the potential to become a more useful tool than we realise.