Slacktivism: Raising Awareness
Clicking a "Like" button on a web site is not only useless, it may actually be counterproductive.
by Brian Dunning
June 17, 2014
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"Slacktivism" is a portmanteau of slacker activism. Everyone likes to think they are being an activist. The Internet is bursting at the seams with ways to make this easy: click a Facebook "Like" button; sign an online petition; retweet a shocking photograph. Such forms of armchair activism almost never accomplish anything. At their best, most of them are wastes of your time; a pointless click of the mouse. But at their worst, they can steal millions of dollars from armchair activists who are persuaded to donate actual money to what they're told is some useful cause.
I remember a day in the 1980s when I was driving through a depressed area of Los Angeles, and there was a billboard advertising "Speak Out Against Racism", with a 976 phone number. These are premium rate phone numbers where the owner receives a portion of the caller's bill for the call. Out of curiosity, I noted the number and called it later, and all it was was a solicitation for you to leave your thoughts about racism, and then you could speak for however long you wanted, into the recording. There was no indication that anyone was even listening to the recorded messages; in fact, I doubt anyone did anything but collected their monthly check for the calls and took it to the bank. It was an early version of what we now call slacktivism; a malicious one at that, because someone was making money off people who thought they were doing something useful.
Today, an example of slacktivism is more likely to be benign. The online petition is very common. Online petitions are not generally binding on anyone, so they carry essentially no weight at all. But they're an easy way to make people think they're accomplishing something, so companies like Change.org offer them by the hundreds of thousands; Google currently lists about three quarters of a million petitions on that site alone. Perhaps once in a long while, a petition will garner enough signatures to persuade a reporter to write an article that a company may respond to from a public relations perspective; but more often, these are not productive. One such example was a petition demanding that PepsiCo remove brominated vegetable oil from their products. Known as BVO, this oil has many uses including non-food applications, like virtually every compound found in virtually every food. Thus, it's really easy to scare people with. "This food contains a chemical used in flame retardant!" shouted the petition. Not a problem, but because of the negative publicity, PepsiCo announced they'd remove it.
Slacktivism is also commonly used to promote deliberate hoaxes, in addition to the ignorant paranoia to which PepsiCo responded. Twitter is often used to spread misinformation in a shocking way that prompts many people to respond. In 2014, a photograph was circulated that showed a laboratory with a lot of cats strapped into frightening-looking racks. The caption said "Retweet if you say NO to animal testing." Over 5,000 people spread the shocking message, with cries of "vivisection" and all sorts of horrors, apparently unaware that it was a photo that had, at some point, been deliberately misattributed by a hoaxer who got it from the Gainseville Sun news website. The cats in the picture had been seized from an abusive hoarder, and were being spayed and neutered by veterinary students at the University of Florida to prepare them for adoption to start new lives.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of how slacktivism can be mere exploitation was the famous Kony 2012 viral video which came out on YouTube in March 2012. It was a 30-minute shockumentary film about the fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony, whose cult-like guerrilla army is called the Lord's Resistance Army, and basically goes around Africa raping, pillaging, and murdering. Within weeks Kony 2012 became the most successful viral video ever, getting over 100 million views in its first six days. Incredibly, a Pew Research Center poll found that 58% of young adults in the United States had heard of the video, comparable to your average major studio motion picture. The movie's call to action? Send money now — but not to African law enforcement, to the filmmakers themselves.
Let's look at two red flags: How massive of a financial exploitation this was for the filmmakers, and how staggeringly useless it was so far as having anything to do with stopping Kony.
Kony 2012 was made by an American charity called Invisible Children, whose mission statement shown in their tax return for the fiscal year in which they produced the movie was:
Invisible Children uses film, creativity, and social action to end the use of child soldiers in Joseph Kony's rebel war and restore RLA-affected communities in Central Africa to peace and prosperity — and in doing so — to create a successful grassroots movement that can help end war permanently.
If I might paraphrase: We make YouTube videos that we hope will end war. And just what did Kony 2012 do for Invisible Children's YouTube production bank account? By the end of their fiscal year, which ended on June 30, about four months after the movie came out, they reported gross receipts of $31.9 million dollars. All of it was donations made by people who watched their movies. They reported no grants or other sources of income.
According to their mission statement, your donations were not used to stop Kony; they were used to make more movies about stopping Kony. Is that really where you had hoped your donation was going? But they did make the followup movie. They made Kony 2012: Part II — Beyond Famous, but chances are you never heard of that one. The hype was over by that point. Invisible Children's tax returns, which are public information since they are a charity, show that they spent $15.5 million in 2012. Quite a budget, considering that Kony 2012: Part II — Beyond Famous was only 20 minutes long, and took one month to produce. I would like to have been a guest at that production's catering table.
So, clearly, persuading people that donating to their online video turned out to be little more than financial exploitation. But let's examine our second red flag. Was raising awareness about Kony a useful thing to do?
No, it was not, most assuredly. Law enforcement had been on Kony's case for nearly a decade before the YouTube movie. Forbes Magazine had listed him on their "World's Most Wanted" in 2008 alongside Osama bin Laden, and in 2011 alongside Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 2005, Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Uganda and the African Union had been actively engaged in finding Kony for a long time.
Even the United States had already been involved in the fight against Kony. Four years before the movie, US President George W. Bush authorized Operation Lightning Thunder directing the United States Africa Command to provide assistance to the Ugandan military in its fight against Kony. Two years before the movie, President Barack Obama signed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, and six months before the movie he sent 100 combat troops to Africa to directly find and disarm Kony. By no means was there any need to "raise awareness" among the people whose job it was to be aware of Kony.
Kony 2012 was slacktivism at its very worst. It took a world issue that, while unknown to most Western people on the street, was very well known to everyone involved with it; and with the message of "raising awareness" it unnecessarily took millions of dollars from people who believed their money was going to be used to solve a problem, as if nobody had ever thought to try and solve it before.
The whole idea of "raising awareness" is used far too often to justify practically anything and everything. People ask "But isn't it good to raise awareness of issue X or issue Y," and I say, no, it's not always a good thing to do. We should only spend money raising awareness when the target audience consists of the people who are in a position to actually do something about the issue, but aren't because they're unaware of it. Raising awareness of Joseph Kony among 100 million American students did nothing for the Ugandan military teams who have been engaged full-time in fighting him since 2004. Raising awareness of something like breast cancer is almost always pointless; the only people I can think of who aren't aware of it are pre-Kindergarten, and aren't likely to make sizable donations to research.
Raising awareness with Facebook "Like" buttons certainly does no harm, but it's called slacktivism for a reason. By doing it, you're slacking. You're only making yourself feel good. If you really care about the issue, find out what group is actually out there on the ground working to solve it, find out what their real needs are, and do whatever it takes. Probably it involves writing a check. If you can't afford to give, and you feel that clicking the "Like" button is better than doing nothing at all, then first trouble yourself to research if this issue is even real. My whole job here at Skeptoid is basically learning to separate what's real from what's not, and in my experience, I've found that most online slacktivism campaigns (and I do mean "most") are bogus. They're based on bad information, bad science, and are hoaxes as often as not.
As an example, let's say your big passion is animal welfare. What are you likely to do when someone sends you a picture similar to the one of cats being spayed and neutered in an apparent chamber of vivisection horrors? That campaign of misinformation harms your cause. It makes you a less effective activist. Slacktivism is not just ineffective, it is counterproductive.
I hereby, officially, expand the definition of slacktivism to include not only "Like" buttons, online petitions, retweets, and other such desktop actions; but also to include any activism of any sort for a cause that you did not research personally and thoroughly enough to determine its validity.
Keep in mind that causes like being opposed to human slavery are not really all that revolutionary. It's not exactly a courageous act of defiance to say "People should not be enslaved." That's something nearly everyone agrees with. When you see a photo or story online of something that appears to be way over the line of what the average person would do, your red flag of skepticism should go way up. Maybe it's true as reported, but chances are better than even that the story or picture is misattributed, exaggerated, or otherwise wrong. Research it and find out. Clear the misinformation out of your cause. Be a good activist, never a slacktivist.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Slacktivism: Raising Awareness." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
17 Jun 2014. Web.
23 Jul 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4419>
References & Further Reading
BBB. "Kony 2012 Video Sends Mixed Message to Young Activists." Wise Giving Alliance. Council of Better Business Bureaus, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 May. 2014. <http://www.bbb.org/us/article/kony-2012-video-sends-mixed-message-to-young-activists-33206>
Corvese, G. "Putting Action Back in Activism." The Brown Daily Herald. Huffington Post, 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 17 May. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-brown-daily-herald/putting-action-back-in-ac_b_2734828.html>
Kristofferson, K., White, K., Peloza, J. "The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action." Journal of Consumer Research. 10 Apr. 2014, Volume 40, Number 6: 1149-1166.
Rainie, L., Hitlin, P., Jurkowitz, M., Dimock, M., Niedorf, S. "The Viral Kony 2012 Video." Pew Research Internet Project. Pew Research Center, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 May. 2014. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/03/15/the-viral-kony-2012-video/>
Tom. "Fact into Fiction – Why Context Matters with Animal Images." Speaking of Research. Speaking of Research, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 May. 2014. <http://speakingofresearch.com/2014/02/27/fact-into-fiction-why-context-matters-with-animal-images/>
Van Grove, J. "Kony 2012 video fastest to hit 100M views, draws scrutiny of BBB." VB News. VentureBeat, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 May. 2014. <http://venturebeat.com/2012/03/12/kony-2012/>
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