Slacktivism: Is Facebook responsible?
What is Slacktivism?
Slacktivism is an oxymoronic marriage of “slack” (i.e. lazy) and “activism” (i.e. involvement in charitable or political causes). A literal translation might be “The misguided feeling that a tiny, digital engagement with a cause or campaign has made a difference”. Slacktivism has come to prominence recently through the increased use of social media to promote political, cultural or charitable campaigns. The chances are that if you’re active on social media, you’ve guilty of slacktivism. Slacktivism commonly manifests itself as a “Like” on Facebook for a fundraising campaign which in practice does not represent a meaningful contribution.
A short history of Slacktivism
Two very popularist Facebook campaigns made slacktivism famous: Kony 2012 and Human Rights Campaign (2013). The former campaign demanded the arrest of Joseph Kony a convicted Ugandan warlord, by the US government in 2012. A documentary produced by the campaign now has 98 million views on YouTube, and Time magazine has defined the documentary as the number one viral video of all time. The result? Kony still remains at large.
The latter HRC campaign encouraged supporters of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender marriage to change their Facebook profile pictures to include a red equals “=” sign. The campaign attempted to influence the Supreme Court’s decision during a debate on marriage equality and Facebook reported that on 26th March 2013, 120% more people changed their profile picture than the previous Tuesday. The result? To date, only nine US states authorise same-sex marriage.
How could Facebook take on Slacktivism?
Facebook already has provision for donating to charitable causes for US users. It is possible to “gift” donations to other users for 16 causes including American Red Cross. A powerful extension to this functionality would see approved charitable campaign posts have a “donate” button alongside “like”, “share” and “comment”, with donors and donation sizes being listed in the same way that “likes” and “comments” are. This would theoretically disrupt slacktivist behaviour because providing a donation would become almost as simple as clicking “like” or “share”, in addition to publically shaming those who “like” but don’t donate.
Is Facebook responsible for addressing Slacktivism?
This point can be addressed by looking at three different arguments – moral, economic and political.
The moral argument – YES
The moral argument attempts to define what the objectively “right” thing to do is in a situation. It alludes to a higher power that defines a shared human conscience, so is naturally open to interpretation.
It could easily be argued that in times of great tragedy, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster, Facebook is in a position to be able to save lives by encouraging donations from its users.
The economic argument – NO
The economic argument is founded on whether such a decision by Facebook would be economically (i.e. financially) viable for them as a corporation.
Quite simply, it wouldn’t be good for business for a number of reasons, and one might suspect that this is already reflected in the low profile presence and US-only reach of existing charitable gifts on Facebook:
- Facebook does not want to drive users away by making them feel morally vacant for not clicking a “donate” button.
- Donating to charity is most effectively targeted at those with a disposable income and a credit card i.e. adults. Recent research has already demonstrated that the Facebook age demographic is increasing and this is a worrying trend that would only be exacerbated by launching a feature like this.
The political argument – NO
Does Facebook have a political responsibility for supporting charities?
This is perhaps the most pertinent argument against. Charitable causes can often split opinion, and in the US there are fewer divisive topics than the HRC campaign for marriage equality. Where religious, political or cultural beliefs clash, Facebook will want to avoid any controversy and remain agnostic for fear of alienating users. An effective social network is a vessel that solely broadcasts its users’ will.
The psychological landscape of social media
Slacktivism is a simple by-product of the social media landscape. Successful marketing campaigns will almost always start with one or more goals, and a clear strategy on how to achieve them. Social media platforms are widely used in marketing but as a relatively recent addition to a campaign’s arsenal, they are often misjudged and misunderstood.
The lack of hierarchy in social media is a fundamental feature because there is no need for permission before one engages publically with others. This has two effects: Firstly, information spreads very quickly (i.e. virally) and secondly there is a considerable amount of egoistic jostling in a vain attempt to establish a hierarchy. Twitter trending represents a rapid content or discussion lifecycle. Current discussions see significant engagement before they quickly become stale and are replaced with newer ones.
Facebook’s recent adoption of hashtags is a direct attempt to tap this rich vein of content recency which is a pillar of Twitter’s success. Charities suffer from slacktivism on social media in the same way that a infographic brand campaign for a green energy company might only recoup 10% of its costs: People move on very quickly in a promiscuous hunt for fresh new content to engage with. As a result, even the most successful content, discussions and causes delivered by social media have little staying power.
Analysing the real impact of slacktivism
There has been some research into the actual economic impact of slacktivism on charitable causes. Unicef sees it as a significant enough problem for them to launch a hard-hitting anti-slacktivist campaign “Likes don’t save lives”:
The first significant piece of research at Michigan State University (Lee, Hsieh) found that slacktivism (or online activism) did have an impact on charitable donations:
“We found that participants who signed the online petition were significantly more likely to donate money to a related charity, demonstrating a consistency effect. We also found that participants who did not sign the petition donated significantly more money to an unrelated charity, demonstrating a moral balancing effect.”
The second piece of research by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and Georgetown University (2011) found that although slacktivism was becoming a prevalent behaviour in charitable campaign engagement, it was outweighed significantly by traditional donations and volunteering. 41% of participants donated as a “most often” action, where as only 15% engaged via social media with the same frequency:
“Americans still prefer historically prominent ways of engaging with causes rather than just online.”
Facebook does not have a responsibility to take on slacktivism, regardless of any moral argument. Social media is a powerful awareness tool for charitable marketing and there are a number of very successful campaigns such as Movember and Aids.gov which have benefitted from using Facebook. Movember has certainly suffered from slacktivism, although this should not detract from the fact that they have successfully raised awareness and received donations through using Facebook.
A common feature of the Kony 2012 and HRC campaigns is that their goals were impossibly ambitious. The association of slacktivism with these two causes comes as a result of their immense viral success and the heightened media scrutiny, but it certainly doesn’t mean that either of them should be deemed a failure.