‘Slactivism’: just another tool of Big Tech

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It’s not exactly a hot take to say that social media is a double-edged sword. Neither is it controversial to say that fake news damages democracy. The incredible information channels and connections that we’ve built are contaminated by toxic debates and bad-faith actors seeking to manipulate our lives; despite the narrative of the free press fighting for the truth, we’re letting them do it.

It’s impossible to go on Overheard at Durham Uni without seeing a new initiative or call for change.

Students in particular are overwhelmed with open letters to sign, pages to like, and Zoom meetings to attend. It’s impossible to go on Overheard at Durham Uni without seeing a new initiative or call for change. In just the last few months, the Durham community has seen petitions on a huge variety of issues, ranging from the Vice-Chancellor appointment process to the restoration of Palatinate’s print funding. Have any of these detracted from activism that, arguably, could have been more significant? No. “Slacktivism” assumes that, given the choice between a real-life protest and liking a Facebook post, the average person will choose the latter and feel the same satisfaction.

In reality, someone who is seriously considering going to a protest is not going to see any number of likes as a substitute. When there isn’t some other event to detract from, ‘slacktivism’ is an improvement in terms of participation. Condensing contribution to complex issues into petitions or letters is, on paper, an excellent way to expand accessibility towards people that would not normally feel any motivation to go all-in on activism. In an age of technology, convenience is the single most important factor to get people to do something, and social media provides that in spades.

It normalises gathering money, supporters, and votes online, handing immeasurable power to the unaccountable tech companies that manage social media sites.

The growing problems with ‘slacktivism’ and the use of social media for campaigning stem from institutional flaws revealed by the abrupt entry of national political campaigning. It normalises gathering money, supporters, and votes online, handing immeasurable power to the unaccountable tech companies that manage social media sites. These sites were not built with political campaigning in mind; they are not fit for purpose, which the rise of misinformation in the last few years has clearly demonstrated. Again, “Big Tech is bad” is not riveting news, but it’s important to understand the role that slacktivism has had in creating the online culture that allowed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook to do what they did. It’s a strange situation where something is both entirely natural and extremely unhealthy. It was inevitable that social media would impact political campaigning, and it was also inevitable that it would irreparably damage our institutions. In an ideal world, slacktivism would stop at the local level. Durham has used online campaigning to great effect, spreading awareness about regional issues that affect us, and can be traced back to our own community.

The bottom line is that slacktivism is here to stay. We’ve only been experiencing the growing pains of it as technology has developed this decade, but ultimately our approach to social media will define whether online campaigning is good or bad for our already damaged democracy.

Image: Victoria Heath via Unsplash.

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