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May 23, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Online Activism: Are We All Just a Bunch of Lazy, Good for Nothing Slacktivists?

Everybody loves a good portmanteau. You know, when two words are spliced together to make a brand new word? Some portmanteaus are useful, like brunch and smog and sexting. Some are annoying, like jeggings and some of them are just completely brilliant, like vagenda, aka THE AGENDA OF MY VAGINA. Sometimes portmanteaus reach a level of media saturation so nauseating that you want to stab your eyes out with a spork (geddit?) like bootylicious or Brangelina or frenemy. Sometimes though, I come across a portmanteau that makes me raise one of my (immaculately groomed) eyebrows. One of those brow-raisers is the word ‘slacktivism’ (and also shart but I’m not planning on writing a thousand word article on the problems of combining diarrhoea and flatulence.) Slacktivism, a charming word-baby of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’, conjures up a picture of an activist who feeds a third world child for a day with one click before eating Eggs Benedict at Fidel’s or an activist who texts the Christchurch earthquake appeal in between games of Angry Birds. Slacktivism implies a kind of activism that can be achieved without leaving the couch, and online activism in particular is often tarred with the slacktivist brush. Is this particular portmanteau fair, then? Is political action that happens online really worth less than that which happens in the ‘real world’?

While online activism is often associated with the inane and the pointless (like changing your profile picture to a cartoon to raise child abuse ‘‘awareness”) it’s actually a bit of an umbrella term. It’s a big umbrella too: online petitions, blogs, PayPal donations, Facebook groups and twitter hashtag protests are all kinds of e-activism, as well as stuff like targeted political hacking, which should not be portmanteaued to ‘packing’. Academics with bad hair are often banging on about the technological revolution we are living in, a revolution that leaves the printing press eating dust, and if anyone has harnessed the power of the internet it is online petition organisations. One of the biggest of these is Avaaz, with 571,811 members in 193 countries.  Since 2007 Avaaz members have taken over twenty five million signatures, raised $15m dollars and organised almost 10,000 events, which is impressive considering that my biggest achievement since 2007 is probably paying off my credit card. Online activism success stories are also happening closer to home, a local example being the ‘Wellington Public Transport Tertiary Student Price Petition’ Facebook group, surprisingly, a group campaigning for student half fares on Wellington public transport. At the time of writing the group had gained 4,515 members in just over two weeks and the group has garnered substantial media attention—as well as interviews in print media the group has also featured in a piece on your grandparents’ favourite show Fair Go. Group spokesperson and Victoria University first year Kane Laing believes that Facebook has been an important organisational tool for the group, telling me “the thing that Facebook can do that nothing else can is networking”. Laing believes that Facebook has been a pivotal tool in reaching out to students in the greater Wellington region, saying “We wouldn’t be getting to those other universities without the internet.”

Not everybody is quite so complimentary of the relationship between the internet and political movements, with opponents critiquing the validity of a ‘like it and you’re done’ culture of clicktivism. I’m guilty of this, much like every other bleeding heart with an internet connection, and looking back through Facebook groups I’ve joined is embarrassing. This list is testament to the fact that once, for five seconds, I cared enough about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and being sentenced to death for adultery by stoning that I joined a Facebook group… that I promptly forgot about. Other critics are more concerned with the corporate aspect of online activism—activism has traditionally occurred outside of the mainstream, and it’s hard to imagine anything less mainstream than a world where Mark Zuckerberg is making megabucks off applications like Facebook Causes. Another glaring flaw with internet-based activism is that it is a system which further cements the digital divide, as the people with the power to create Facebook groups and send petitions are those with access to computers, cell phones, internet and electricity. Other critics, including famous activist Ralph Nader, have pointed out other flaws in social movement without any social contact, with Nader claiming that corporations and Governments aren’t afraid of civic use of social media and suggesting that the internet “doesn’t do a very good job of motivating action”.While the reach of the ‘Wellington Public Transport Tertiary Student Price Petition’ Facebook group—and the speed at which this has been achieved—is exciting, would the movement be more influential if it were happening on the streets, as opposed to behind a computer screen? Would a march to Parliament with over 4,000 members be more effective than a Facebook group?

Possibly, but also possibly not. Often, and perhaps unfortunately, the success of resistance movements is measured on their media coverage and the mainstream media is not traditionally known for its fair and balanced representation of protest. As shown in research on Waitangi Day by Victoria University Politics Professor Kate McMillan, the New Zealand media often reports on protests only to detail poor turn outs or focuses on arrests and brawls. There is a lot to be said for online activism in combating the image of violent resistance, and it’s hard to incorrectly guestimate (there’s another one!) numbers in attendance when supporters are calculated by an internet machine. Strangely, it’s often the lack of arrests and brawls that lump online resistance with the ‘slacktivism’ title—sitting behind a computer tends to be a lot less dangerous than participating in a sit-in. While talking to activists I found that being part of political action online does come with personal risk, and with risk comes consequences. Youth educator and blogger Rachel Hansen was one of four bloggers involved in setting up and moderating a Facebook group in protest of the Rock’s controversial – read: misogynist – ‘Win a Wife’ radio competition. Although the group achieved considerable success, with mainstream media coverage and many advertisers pulling their advertising with the Rock, the group had to be shut down to because of persistent online attacks, with adversaries – read: Neanderthals – posting pornography on the page in an attempt to intimidate participants and get the group removed. Hansen describes the stress she experienced while moderating the page as “horrible”, she made the decision to leave the group, saying “I’d be working late at night and I’d be distracted by my paid work by getting rid of pornography”. She isn’t alone: American blogger Sady Doyle experienced death threats during her work on the Moore and Me Twitter hashtag protest, and even University Transport Group spokesman Laing says the group has come up against vitriolic criticism online from “keyboard warriors”. While Hansen, Doyle and Laing might not be locked up in jail, their experiences demonstrate that being involved in online activism requires a significant commitment, and some level of risk to your mental health.

Online activism and traditional protest are not mutually exclusive. Research from the University of California even shows that involvement in online communities promotes positive engagement with society. Technology is improving everything, from medicine to sex toys to those fridges with a drawer that has a pantry setting, and it’s up to activists to make the most of the technology available to them. Activists are using the internet to recruit, to organise and to delegate. Recently, when the Egyptian dictatorship wanted to quash a revolution, and fast, they simply shut down the internet and mobile phone networks so protesters could not communicate. While not quite as ‘life and death’ as the situation in Egypt, the work of the ‘Wellington Public Transport Tertiary Student Price Petition’ Facebook Group have used the Facebook group as a platform to encourage members to sign online petitions which are then sent to MPs and the Council. Group spokesperson Laing thinks “there is no doubt that slacktivism exists but the huge thing the internet can do is organisation”. I think I agree with him. If I were to use any portmanteau to describe the relationship between traditional protest and online activism it wouldn’t be slacktivism. It’d be bromance.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Marie says:

    Cool article. I was nearly surprised to see it was from the same Ally Garrett of the ‘I am offended’ column. Really don’t like that column, but really liking this article.

  2. Steph says:

    I love you Ally Garrett! I also love ‘I am offended’. The idea of ‘slacktivisim’ kind of annoys me – like, “clicking on a link doesn’t count, you only REALLY hold an opinion if you march through the streets shouting it.” I think the internet is a great way to harness the dissent of people who would otherwise not express it.

  3. Lynn says:

    Is that rlealy all there is to it because that’d be flabbergasting.

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