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Activism Or Slacktivism? How Social Media Hurts And Helps Student Activism


On Oct. 1, 1964, hundreds of University of California-Berkeley students surrounded a police car to protest the arrest of a student. Students stood on top of the car to deliver speeches and sing, “We Shall Overcome,” to a crowd that grew to include roughly two thousand students.

Years later, on Nov. 21, 2013, students gathered in Saint Louis University’s student union for “The State of St. Louis,” an event planned by a SLU's Political Roundtable. Students sat around tables instead of standing on cars, but that’s not the only difference between student activism today and the sit-ins of the past. Student activists today can use social media to promote their organizations online.

While Political Roundtable has 126 supporters on Facebook, roughly 30 students attended their event. Their absence could be attributed to studying for tests or having another commitment, but it could be because of a different phenomenon: slacktivism. 

What Is “Slacktivism”?

Slacktivism is a term for giving token support for a cause, like wearing a pin or “liking” something on Facebook, without being willing to engage in more meaningful support, like donating time or money. And with the presence of social media, being a slacktivist is easier now than ever.  

recent study from the University of British Columbia found that when people participate in a form of public token support, they aren't any more likely to participate in a form of more meaningful support in the future.  Someone who "likes" a cause on Facebook wouldn't be any more likely to donate in the future than someone who had no exposure to the cause at all. 

"We found that when consumers gave public support, they were no more likely to provide more meaningful support for the cause than if someone was just randomly asked for the larger request."

Kirk Kristofferson is one of the authors of the study.

“What we found is that the social observability of the token support really impacted how likely consumers were to follow up and provide real support for that charity," Kristofferson said. "We found that when consumers gave public support, they were no more likely to provide more meaningful support for the cause than if someone was just randomly asked for the larger request."  

Studies have shown that when people support a cause with some effort, they’re more likely to support a cause with an even larger effort in the future. For example, someone who participates in a 5k run for a charity is more likely to donate in the future than someone who has no familiarity with the cause at all or has done something minimal like joining their page on Facebook.

If college students choose to be activists by sharing a link or liking a status, they may not feel more compelled to take real, tangible effort towards social change.

“Drawing back from the 60s and sit ins, that was real action. That was people putting forth a strong effort,” Kristofferson said. “Conversely, what social media has done is remove that effort. So, our findings would suggest that it (social media) would be making it more difficult to make a difference.”

How Do Students See Social Media With Social Causes?

Back at SLU, T.K. Smith is on the executive board of Saint Louis University’s Political Round Table. He thinks that social media can convince users they’re doing something good even if all they’re doing is pressing a button.

“Because we can like something, because we can read an article online, it kind of changes how you feel like you are doing something,” Smith said. “You kind of feel like being more in the know that you are doing more than if you hadn’t 'liked' it.”

"Raising awareness is a lazy objective. Awareness is a given, action is what you want to promote."

Another student at Saint Louis University, Christina LaFon, created a Facebook group with the purpose of sharing articles about feminism with like-minded people. 

 But raising awareness, LaFon said, isn't the end goal of social justice, or her own end goal for the group. 

“Raising awareness is a lazy objective. Awareness is a given, action is what you want to promote,” LaFon said. “Eventually, I’d really like for us to be able to provide resources for people to start their own movements.”

'Slacktivism' Still Means Activism... When It's Done Right

Advocating for a cause on social media does not automatically make you a slacktivist. LaFon, for instance, has been involved in political campaigning and offline advocacy in addition to the awareness she tries to raise online.

Julie Dixon is Deputy Director of the Georgetown Center for Social Impact Communication, and one of the authors of “Digital Persuasion,” a study that looks at how social media users use their influence to promote social change.

“It’s unfair to write off everyone who supports on social media as being a slacktivist,” Dixon said.“Because as we’ve seen in other research, there are folks who are active on social media who are deeply involved in other ways.”

Credit Credit (Flickr Matt_Baldry)
British students continue to protest the high cost of tuition like the Liverpool students pictured here in November, 2010.

Despite the potential effects of slacktivism student protests do still occur on college campuses. Just last year SLU students helped organize a sit-in and teach-in in protest of then-President Father Lawrence Biondi, and within the last couple years student protests have gained global attention in Egypt, England and Chile.

In many ways, Dixon said, social media makes it easier for students to organize in a way that can lead to offline engagement. 

Most importantly, Dixon said to remember that social media isn’t a fundraising tool; it’s a relationship building tool. Social causes are helped by social media when you see what your network cares about and decide to care about that, too.

“How people hear about causes and how people decide to support and care about them it comes a lot more often from their friends,” Dixon said. “It doesn’t come from this blanket post from the organization- that doesn’t work as much as having a friend say, ‘Hey this is an organization that I really care about and it's impacted my life, and you should care about this as well.’”

Social media allows users to organize, network and share what they’re passionate about in a way that wasn’t available to student protestors in the 60s. It’s now easier than ever to learn about causes and share information, but it's also easier than ever to be a slacktivist. 

Through research, experts like Dixon and Kristofferson continue to work towards connecting users and organizations in a way that will combat slacktivism and lead to meaningful support that both users and organizations could “like.”


Take a look at some popular token support campaigns by exploring the infogram below.

Slacktivism Or Activism? Mustache Movember | Create infographics
Or, for a look at a campaign committed to combating slacktivism, watch this video from UNICEF Sweden's "Likes Don't Save Lives" Campaign. 

Follow Kate Essig on Twitter:@KateEssig

Car Top Rally Audio Courtesy of Pacifica Radio Archives