Since our newest president’s election, mass demonstrations — and the photo ops that accompany them — have become more and more embedded into our culture. With just a click of a button, your Facebook friend Karen can transform herself from typically quiet and receptive to the most opinionated, yet well-rounded social justice warrior on your newsfeed.
Last week’s season finale of Portlandia provided a timely satire of our society’s current obsession with being politically “woke.” In the episode, Fred and Carrie attempt to resist the cycle of inactivity surrounding social causes by attending a rally focused on improving rights for bicyclists. Too caught up in looking the part, the duo miss the protest, but still reap the benefits of appearing so inspired as they get a chance to talk to reporters, who also arrived late to the scene.
As our current news cycle is flooded with news of injustice and abuse, the appearance of a calm attitude on social media can be mistaken as apathy, prompting users to frantically direct online attention to the world’s most serious issues. This trend, otherwise known as “slacktivism,” typically consists of a series of fervent political retweets and shares on Twitter and Facebook, with little to no personal effort made by the user.
However, the failure of some social movements mobilizing is not a sign that hashtags and viral videos aren’t working. The idea that sharing videos takes place of real political actions is a false choice and makes the assumption that people cannot be conscious of several issues at once. A 2012 study published in the science journal Nature suggested that online messages can influence offline behavior, specifically by influencing users’ voting patterns.
We all have a friend who does little to hide their political views online, and feelings toward their content can range from motivated to highly annoyed. It’s easy to criticize slacktivists for appearing passionate about causes behind a screen and scrutinize their behaviors offline.
Attempting to change others’ political views with hard evidence can trigger the backfire effect, a term referring to humans’ tendency to revert deeper into their beliefs when presented with conflicting evidence. This effect is the reason why arguments online are usually done in vain, and why we criticize dogmatic social justice warriors who are not strategic nor practical in how they present their feelings.
Our Facebook feeds are not only filled with political arguments, but also with examples of short videos or comics that present dire problems in short, understandable and sometimes even funny ways, allowing for heavy issues to be easily digested. An excerpt from the documentary Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity depicts the power of white privilege in less than four minutes through the emotional retelling of one woman’s experience, and it now has more than 52 million views on Facebook.
If you define activism solely as high-risk measures, such as sit-ins or taking a day off from work, then yes, slacktivism is distracting to the larger political movement.
But social media is a powerful part of our culture, shaping the type of news major outlets cover and affecting many of our personal beliefs. While social media users can abuse their ability to share politically charged content, reminders of today’s abuses have the ability to prevent others from becoming too complacent.
This year’s Women’s March on Washington, estimated to have a turnout of about 500,000, began as a Facebook event created by a single woman. People do care about the convictions of their close friends, colleagues and those they admire in the real world. Their Facebook “likes” demonstrate their support for political causes and have the ability to trigger reaction from their peers.
Fred and Carrie’s ill attempt at producing social change for bicyclists was funny but does not capture the emotional responses that “slacktivism” can trigger. The transformative power of social media on our personal views demonstrates that is it not only an instrument for political change, but the platform where change occurs in itself.