I recently engaged in a very healthy debate with a friend about the level of political and social engagement in years past compared with the level of involvement today.
As the discussion continued, he introduced me to a term used to describe those who derive personal pleasure out of engaging in feel-good measures that have little practical effect: “slacktivists.” The conversation quickly shifted to that subject and set the stage for future conversations about social activism.
The term “slacktivism,” a combination of the words slacker and activism, has apparently been around for some time. However, it has gained popularity over the last few years as social media and television call-in numbers have made it increasingly easy to lend support for a cause or person simply by clicking a “like” button or dialing a phone number.
Slacktivist behavior can include signing/“liking” Internet petitions, joining community organizations without actually contributing to their efforts, purchasing luxury brand goods that highlight support for a particular cause or copying and pasting pictures and videos to raise awareness about a person, event or movement.
An intriguing debate is underway concerning the importance of social media as an agent of social change.
Georgetown University recently conducted a study titled “The Dynamics of Cause Engagement.” The researchers concluded that slacktivists are “more likely to take meaningful actions” and “participate in more than twice as many activities as people who don’t engage in slacktivism.”
They also found that slacktivists “have a higher potential to influence others.” They determined that slacktivists can achieve clear objectives and create a secure, low-cost, effective means of organizing in an environmentally friendly manner.
Critics of slacktivism dismiss the notion that Internet activities are effective or that they increase social or political participation in real life. They argue that the social media revolution has deadened the passion for actual activism and caused many people to simply rely on their sometimes anonymous clicks to speak for them.
Although it is increasingly difficult to determine an exact percentage of slacktivist activities that reach a stated goal, studies suggest that fears of Internet activities supplanting real-life activity clearly exist and are cause for concern.
A recent example of so-called slacktivism at work occurred earlier this year, when an organization called Invisible Children Inc. created a short film called “Kony 2012.” The purpose of the film was to promote the organization’s “Stop Kony” movement and draw attention to Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony.
The film spread through social media channels quickly, with close to 100 million views on YouTube and almost 20 million views on Vimeo. A recent poll determined that more than half of Americans heard about “Kony 2012,” mostly in the days immediately after the film’s release.
A U.S. Senate resolution “condemning Joseph Kony and his ruthless guerrilla group for a 26-year campaign of terror” was introduced by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., after his daughters asked him what he was doing to stop Kony.
The organization attempted to follow up the overwhelming success of the film by organizing an event called “Cover the Night” in April. The goal was to organize supporters and encourage them to be involved in some form of charity work in their local community.
In addition, they were supposed to place posters and other materials about the Kony 2012 campaign in their neighborhoods. The turnout for the community event was much smaller than anticipated, with scattered gatherings netting between 17 and 50 people.
Later in April, the same organization released “Kony 2012: Part II — Beyond Famous,” a 20-minute, follow-up video to “Kony 2012.” The purpose of the film was to present a more detailed analysis of the issues facing Uganda and provide more specific ways that people could get involved.
Eleven days after its release, the film had received 1.7 million views, less than 2 percent of what the first video received in its first five days. Six months later, little has changed, and Kony remains a free man.
With the explosive growth in technology — conservative estimates suggest that over 1 billion people will own smartphones in 2016 — it is clear our society must take advantage of the amazing opportunities presented by this new reality.
At the same time, we must never forget the things that paved the way for this technology revolution: hard work, focus, dedication, passion and grit. They are the characteristics that have helped to shape and mold our present.
Our future must not be determined by the number of “likes” on a screen, and social change should not be tweeted. If our communities, schools, businesses and regions are to be changed, we have to get up, get out and get involved again.
Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His e-mail address is [email protected]