The road to hell is paved with good intentions – is online activism fake activism?




Five years ago this week the organisation Invisible Children uploaded the video Kony 2012 to YouTube. Unless you were living under a rock, I’m sure that you at least heard about it at some stage during the year. The video went viral instantly, it was viewed one million times within 24 hours of being uploaded and currently has over 101 million views.

It is narrated by co-founder of Invisible Children Jason Russell, who called it an experiment. The documentary is about Joseph Kony, a central African warlord and leader of guerrilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. Russell explains that for 26 years the LRA have been kidnapping children, forcing them to kill their parents and then turning them into child soldiers and sex slaves. The video is a campaign to make Kony famous – he was relatively unknown in the Western world at the time, so that he may be captured.

A poster from the #StopKony campaign (Noble 265)

Kony did become a household name but the hunt failed overall. He was never arrested and five years later he is still wanted by the International Criminal Court. It seems that the #StopKony campaign turned out to be another example of “slacktivism,” or hashtag activism. Slacktivism is just an illusion of activism, for the majority of people a Facebook like or share, or a retweet is as far as their dedication to a cause goes.

A slacktivist is essentially someone who cares enough about an issue to talk about it online but doesn’t care enough to leave their computer and do something about it. They would rather spread knowledge of the subject online and hope they persuade someone else to take action. There is a huge difference in sharing a post about a cause online and going out and physically campaigning for change.

While Kony 2012 was an online success it made little real world impact. Their global “Cover the Night” event took place on April 20th 2012 and aimed to cover “every city, on every block” with posters and murals of Joseph Kony to spread word of who the Ugandan warlord is. The organisation’s credibility took a hit when they struggled to attract a crowd for the event.

Is it the case that we care more about looking charitable than actually being charitable?

A member of the marketing research team at the University of British Columbia and Florida State University, Kirk Kristofferson says that “clicking like on Facebook or donning a colourful wristband satisfies a need to present oneself to others in a positive light.”

Professor Kristofferson spoke to The Circular about what the emergence of slacktivism means for traditional activism;

1) The internet has made it a lot easier for people to give token support through online petitions, sharing/retweeting posts – do you think that this is the future of activism?

While the internet has provided a low-cost/low-effort platform for encouraging token support, I do not think it is the future of activism. Token support is not activism; taking meaningful action to help a charity/non-profit organization fulfill its mission is (e.g., volunteering, donating). I think the internet will remain a component of a non-profit’s marketing activities, but I am hopeful that these organizations are not operating under the assumption that token support (in its current public form) will lead to more donations.

2) Is ‘slacktivism’ beneficial to a charity/cause at all?

Slacktivism, by our definition, is not beneficial. Slacktivism is the willingness to provide token support for a social cause, but an accompanying unwillingness to take that next step and provide more meaningful support. Providing token support, however, can be helpful in raising awareness of an issue.

3) Is it the case that we care more about looking charitable to our peers than actually being charitable?

When we behave publicly, we become aware of the impression we are giving to others. Our research suggests that when we provide public token support for a positively-viewed social cause, the motive to look good to others becomes satisfied. I would speculate that when we given token support we do have a belief on some level that we want to help the cause and that it is an important one.

I’m not saying that online campaigns are a lost cause. Social media is a powerful globalising tool that can promote campaigns and incite change.

ALS ice bucket challenge was a worldwide phenomenon during Summer 2014 (Global Panorama)

Summer 2014 was the season of the ice bucket challenge. People all over the world uploaded footage online of them throwing a bucket of iced water over their head for donations to The ALS Association. They would then nominate friends to do the same. More than 17 million people uploaded ice bucket challenge videos and the charity received $115 million in donations during one Summer. 

However did this challenge become such a huge phenomenon because people suddenly became concerned with ALS or was it because we like to look charitable, copy celebrities, or follow a new trend? The ALS Association announced the challenge as an annual campaign, for every August but it has since failed to meet the success of 2014 proving that it was just a temporary trend.

Also, last December a group of about 100 activists occupied Apollo House on Tara Street in Dublin. They were taking a stance against the fact that there is a homelessness crisis in the city despite the number derelict buildings. The campaign aimed to give homeless people accommodation for the Christmas period. They housed 38 people altogether and collected €160,000 in donations from the public. Those who did not attend in person “checked in” to Apollo House on Facebook to show support for the cause. The campaign was successful and was national news for the duration. The movement began online when Quentin Sheridan set up a Facebook page called Home Sweet Home.

Campaigners from Home Sweet Home (Sinn Féin)

The Apollo House occupation succeeded where #StopKony failed as people cared enough to turn up to the event.

Online activism works if they manage to attract like-minded and motivated people to the cause. Slacktivism consists of those who have the intention to go out and change the world for the better, but lack the motivation to follow through.

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