There is a growing consensus among scholars and researchers that despite increasing number of people using online media to engage in activism, the actual number of ‘genuine’ activists is sharply decreasing in a way that can harm the overall vitality and effectiveness of civil society in the long-run. In other words, more and more individuals nowadays are using their online presence in the cyberspace as a substitute for actually leaving their comfort zones and taking the pain of doing something concrete or meaningful for some bonafide civic cause.
In sharp contrast to the some of the traditional means used by previous generations of activism such as strikes, sit-ins, and mass protests; the civil society actors are now relying on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to merely spread awareness, sign petitions, and engage in ‘war of comments’. It goes without saying that this type of activism requires little to no effort, personal commitment or risk. Many authors have referred to this emerging phenomenon as slacktivism which is equated with ‘a lazy person’s activism’. This term implies that the activist’s wish is to make his/her efforts more time-efficient with zero or less commitment to the cause he/she pretends to be supporting.
In this context, if we take online petitions as an instructive example, the Internet has made it much easier to signing them and then spreading the word to ask a large number of online users to do the same. Although signing a petition is hardly complicated task, the real question is whether these petitions actually achieve something or not. Same is the case with charity organizations that regularly engage thousands of users online through their social media awareness campaigns. A new study from the University of British Columbia has found that showing public support for a charity on social media makes people less likely to give an actual monetary donation.
One of the interesting questions that has recently become the focus of research with reference to analyzing the effectiveness of internet and social media in driving social change is: whether online activism on its own can lead to any kind of substantial social change? With regards to this question opinion is largely divided. On the one hand, many people argue that internet and online platforms have immense power in shaping and transforming public opinion and in the past social media played important role in motivating and organizing civil society actors in different countries. For example, social media was credited as one of the most effective tools used by Arab Spring activists which subsequently led to the toppling of many oppressive and non-democratic regimes in countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya.
On the other hand, many researchers and authors contend that online activism or slacktivism is in fact harming the effectiveness of civil society organizations because the availability of online social media has made it easier for people to live in an illusion of supporting a cause while committing no physical or financial resources to actually make a difference. They argue that while traditional advocacy and civil society activism includes organizing rallies, letter writing, fundraising and boycotting; online activism typically relies on ‘feel-good’ activities like signing petitions, retweeting on Twitter, re-posting statutes and liking posts on Facebook or changing avatars to reflect that a particular person cares about an issue and supports change.
In the 21st century world the modes of popular protest and activism are becoming rich in variation as technological advances in communication are progressing at an astonishing pace. Alongside the shift in communication technologies the role and image of civil society organizations is going through a significant change because modern communication technologies especially internet has given civil society actors powerful tools to connect with each other and convey their message to a wider audience across the physical, social and geographical divide.
Notwithstanding with many advantages of social media, we need to realize that the advent of modern digital communication technologies and cyber space have indeed created a serious threat for civil society actors. It is evident from the fact that now social change organizations and leaders find it increasingly difficult to mobilize and motivate people to take collective action in the real world. Recent events provide many examples as stark reminders that more and more people are becoming contented with participating in social media campaigns in the cyber space while doing very little to bring any substantial and palpable change in their own lives or their surroundings.
Keeping this analysis in perspective it is important to take into consideration the slacktivist behavior as a direct result of rational choices made by rational actors in a digitally enabled environment. Thus, in order to be more effective the current civil society organizations and actors must realize that online activism is a means to the end and not end in itself.