The rise of #slacktivism

                 Wikileaks Van. Image Courtesy Chris Wieland via Flickr.

The rise of social media activism has gradually risen thought out the past few years, and was particularly noticeable in the 2011 Arab Spring, in which Twitter and Facebook were largely the tools used by citizens to communicate and organise protests.  Social movements/groups such as WikiLeaks, Anonymous & Occupy Wall Street have been accredited with making such movements possible, and encouraging ordinary citizens to participate in revolutions using social media, reviving the old protest concept.  However, many are starting to question the type of ‘activism’ that WikiLeaks and other activist groups are creating.  Some people are beginning to argue that this increased awareness of social/political issues on social media is creating what is known as slack participation, or ‘slacktivism’.

Wikileaks stop govt lies, abuse. Image courtesy avlxyz via Flickr.

‘Slacktivism’ refers to the act of supporting a cause without actually contributing to it in any way that makes a difference, making it a highly lazy way to contribute.  Activities that are considered to be ‘slackivist’ in nature include signing online petitions, and forwarding emails about an issue to everyone an individual knows.   For example, people who press ‘like’ on a Facebook page about a particular cause may think that they are significantly contributing to the cause when in fact, this does very little. A further example includes the entire KONY2012 campaign by Invisible Children, which involved people watching a 20-minute video and then afterwards finding themselves enlightened with a new sense of renewed social justice.  This instead leaves an individual feeling satisfied and often self-righteous, when nothing major has been achieved.   The motivation for change is simply not there, or it is redirected into areas that make little difference.

Arguably three of the most important social movements/groups of the past few years include WikiLeaks, Anonymous & Occupy Wall Street, who all share

Free WikiLeaks Buenos Aires. Image courtesy Manuchis via Flickr.

similarities amongst each other including their main causes, that include standing up and speaking out against oppressive governments and corruption.  The three have been known to give support to the other, and all even share the same symbol, being the Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta, a metaphor for both anonymity and resistance.  While Occupy Wall Street was significant in terms of its practical protest, many argue that WikiLeaks and Anonymous create or encourage slacktivism due to their emphasis on online activities.  Furthermore, the public fighting between both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, leading to Anonymous turning its back on WikiLeaks and allegedly creating its own WikiLeaks clone called TYLER, has led to further disillusionment.

A further problem as the result of the rise of popularity of these groups such as WikiLeaks and the consequent rise of social/cyber activism includes quality control.  Citizen journalism increased has in turn increased in popularity due to the empowerment of the everyday citizen brought by technology and these social media revolutions.  While this does capture significant events that news crews wouldn’t normally get to, and unique opinions that aren’t normally given coverage, this eliminates the ability to understand if the source is credible.  The entire concept of gatekeepers has been removed. The Grassroots level is indeed important in revolutions, but sometimes can hinder rather than help.

However, others believe that social media activism is indeed a highly positive and beneficial concept and that it will soon be potentially the main or only form of social activism.  Others have also called to stop the demonization of the term ‘slacktivism’, at its worst, it encourages participation in a cause that may or may not lead to offline participation.

Wikileaks Truck at The New York Times. Image courtesy Wikileaks Mobile Information Collection Unit via Flickr.

In a study by Simon Lindgren and Ragnar Lundström in 2011 entitled ‘Pirate culture and hacktivist mobilization: The cultural and social protocols of #Wikileaks on Twitter’ analysed the hash tag of WikiLeaks on twitter, it found that tweets in relation to Wikileaks on this website were used for _ reasons including linking others to news stories, asking for donations, quoting political and philosophical slogans to justify free speech, descriptions of the ‘enemy’ or ‘opposition’ and the discussion of future Wikileaks releases.  This suggests that there is a sense of participation evident within the issue of Wikileaks.

The sense of protest and revolution has not been deadened by the Internet, in fact some argue the Internet has nothing to do with it.  Blogger Jillian York in her post, ‘Not Twitter, Not Wikileaks: A Human Revolution’, argues that the Internet and social media do not cause revolutions, but rather help, “But to call this a “Twitter revolution” or even a “WikiLeaks revolution” demonstrates that we haven’t learned anything from past experiences in Moldova and Iran.  Evgeny Morozov’s question–”Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”–says it all.  And in this case, yes, I–like most Tunisians to whom I’ve posed this question–believe that this would have happened without the Internet.”

Indeed, the old form of protest, the kind where you leave the house, still occur.  On Saturday October 6, a rally was held for Julian Assange at Sydney Town Hall.  This was one of the many that occurred around Australia during this year.  Many supporters also camped outside the Ecuadorian Embassy for days, and would attempt to trick authorities holding up signs that stated “I’m Julian Assange” whilst Assange was awaiting his asylum status. Below follows a video documenting the speeches at this rally.

It can be said that while slacktivism does have the potential to occur within the revolutions and movements brought about by WikiLeaks and associated groups, it is also important to remember that social media has a strong part to play in the modern day protest, but at the end of the day, it is largely still the human revolution, brought about by the empowerment of the individual from oppressive forces, which of course is the main aim of WikiLeaks.

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