Online activism: solidarity or just ‘slactivism’?

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Slacktivism – it’s such a fabulous new word, right? But unfortunately, what it describes is not so wonderful. Token activism, more colloquially known as slacktivism, is the emerging practice of people reposting images or articles in solidarity with the activist causes of the day, whilst enjoying their latest Starbucks coffee in a plastic-covered cup. It hardly screams ‘Greta Thunberg-esque’ environmental sacrifices does it?

This isn’t to say I’m pointing the finger, far from it – I must admit I’ve used a plastic straw in my time despite trying to be a self-righteous Geography student. However, token activism does point to an element of contradiction between what we advocate for online and how these actions really play out in the flesh. It prompts us to ask ourselves: are our #solidarity posts on social media really helping the situation? Can reposting activist literature on our Instagram stories enact long-lasting change?

It’s fair to say that we’ve all spent plenty of time on our phones this year. Aside from mindless scrolling on TikTok, there has been a notable uptake in what critics have described as ‘token activism’.

There is a contradiction between what we advocate for online and in the flesh

The most significant example that I’ve seen on my social media feed has been surrounding the conversation of racial justice, prompted by the Black Lives Matter activist movement. This was particularly noticeable when people first decided to change their social media profile pictures to a black screen to show solidarity with the movement. It almost felt as if there was a pressure to conform to this show of solidarity, but for me, it felt like a meaningless gesture. I fully support the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I just could not fathom how posting a black screen was really going to improve the lives of those experiencing racial injustice.

Thankfully, it seems that these social media ‘shows of solidarity’ have evolved into something more meaningful and targeted. By this, I mean the posting of activist reading materials by individuals to help educate their family and friends on important societal issues. This is clearly more useful than the previous example of social media engagement as it is prompting a level of individual activism with key societal issues. Indeed, these education materials have shed light on issues I had not previously encountered.

In many ways, with Covid-19 restrictions, this feels like the only way to engage with the activist organisations we support. But can this ever be a substitute for making your voice heard on a protest march, or making individual choices like buying from ethical clothing brands to do your bit to save the planet? Perhaps we are all pursuing a breadth of engagement with activism, but we should really be focussing on depth. Well, this is what the critics of token activism are saying anyway.

In many ways, it feels like the term ‘token activism’ is just another way of attacking the actions of the ‘woke’ generation, but it might be worth taking note of some of their criticisms.

It is worth pointing out the upward progression of social media activism – we’ve certainly improved from those black screen days – although we could take bigger steps towards enacting meaningful change on issues that matter to us. Education is a really important part of that, and I support the work that my family and friends are doing on social media to educate others on issues like racial justice and climate change.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel as if we could do more in the ‘real world’ too. Maybe I just like a protest march too much. Perhaps it will feel more real once the Covid-19 restrictions are over. Who can say if social media activism will be successful in the end? I certainly cannot, but I know one thing for sure: I want to be part of every step towards progress and justice. Slacktivism might not be such a great word after all.

Image: dole777 via Flickr

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