If you were to walk down the street today, see ten people, and estimate how many of them use social media, what would you say? In the US, the answer is seven. Simply stated, 70% of Americans used social media as of 2019. The extent of this use varies, but either way, the popularity of public social networks has skyrocketed since the early 2000s. It’s a means of connection, entertainment, and information, bringing both benefits and difficulties. Social media activism, or simply social activism, has provided an easier way to make an impact on important causes. This approach to social change and advocacy has its benefits, but it ultimately confronts issues that need consistent engagement. Therefore, instead of only focusing on a single action, social activism needs to encourage tangible actions and long-term solutions.
Hashtags and Activism
Hashtags have become a vital principle of social media activism, providing a simple way to share and find information. Recently, trending hashtags have flooded social media platforms, highlighting racial and gender inequities. One of these was #BlackoutTuesday, for which supporters of Black Lives Matter posted a black square on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram on June 2, 2020. This trend appeared amid widespread outrage over George Floyd’s death and America’s deeply-embedded systemic racism. More recently, #ChallengeAccepted has gained popularity. There was some confusion surrounding this hashtag due to the varying purposes people used it for. In mid-July, women began posting black and white photos of themselves, tagging them #ChallengeAccepted. Some used this hashtag to show their support for women’s empowerment, while others used it to spread awareness of femicide in Turkey. These are similar but unorganized ideas. Both of these hashtags provided a medium to share information and spread awareness, but neither Blackout Tuesday nor Challenge Accepted pushed for tangible actions.
Social Activism’s Capabilities
Activism today seems almost incomplete without the use of social media. It’s a vital medium to both the organizers and participants of events and trends but it often falls short of sparking long-term change. The opportunities of social activism, as laid out in this Political Psychology article, are seen through the exchange and coordination of activist activities as well as the powerful messages that incite emotional and motivational responses among users. Movements such as #TimesUp and #GetBackOurGirls, for example, were powered through hashtags. But while spreading awareness is important, it can’t be the end. This is often where the capabilities of social activism fall short—by ending movements too soon, the possibility of lasting change is eliminated.
Slacking Off, Feeling Accomplished
It may be a fun word to say, but slacktivism limits the potential of what good can be done. The United Nations defines slacktivism as the act of supporting “a cause by performing simple measures” without genuine engagement or effort to make an impact. It’s cheap and inconsequential– an easy trap to fall into. Michigan State University demonstrated that slacktivism is essentially no more than a dead-end, only encouraging other low-impact actions such as petitions. Blackout Tuesday and Challenge Accepted are prime examples of slacktivism. They require no commitment, and when there’s no commitment, there’s almost no impact. This is where social activism falls short. It has the opportunity to spark reform, even on a political level, and yet instead of pushing for real-life actions, a single social media post accompanied by a hashtag is deemed sufficient.
Lasting Issues = Lasting Attention
Many companies and activists support one-time actions, but this isn’t good enough. Spreading awareness with hashtag activism is the start, but counter to what slacktivism encourages, awareness is not the end goal. Concern about racism is not an action against racism. Likewise, acknowledgment of human trafficking or genocide is not an action against these injustices. More needs to be done by which I mean protests, a boycott of products, and donations. Reaching out to influential politicians and demanding legislative change with sit-ins are tangible actions that have produced changes in the past. For instance, the sit-in movement of America’s Civil Rights Era drew publicity and widespread disruption. That publicity and disruption are often exactly what fuels reform. Those who argue slacktivism is essential are not wrong. Slacktivism is simply the first act of social change, raising awareness, and taking small actions. But small actions must always build up to larger actions that provide more than awareness. Social activism needs to shy away from using trends alone. Trends get attention, but they don’t get devotion.
Social activism can work effectively to fight injustice, but only if it’s paired with real-life movements. When short-term trends that encourage slacktivism gain popularity, all social activism does is make people feel good about their so-called “contributions.” Singing petitions and retweeting posts are baby steps in the right direction– and it’s time we start taking bigger steps. Otherwise, humanitarian crises will continue, racism will stay the norm in America, and slacktivism will continue to be seen as sufficient.
Trending hashtags, and those who use them, need to encourage individuals to share their own words, not just repost what others have said. Encouraging donations and actions in people’s daily lives are just a few more aspects of social activism that are essential. Beyond all this, constant engagement is needed. Devotion to a cause is what makes an impact. Social activism needs our individual voices and daily involvement.