December 15, 2015

Slacktivists, Hacktivists, and the New Faceless Agents of Social Change

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When you think of social change activists what comes to mind? Do you think of a person with a megaphone shouting slogans to a group of supporters who are holding signs of protest, or do you think of a person lounging in bed with their tablet or smartphone? Most of us probably think of the first scenario, and we probably imagine this scene taking place in a public location such as a park, outside a government building, or on a city street. Some of the classic images we have of activists include the 1963 March on Washington, the Occupy Movements, and the Arab Spring.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although joining together in direction action to demand change is still a popular and a successful form of social activism, the extent to which people congregate publicly seems to be shifting. These days, when activists are strategizing about how to mobilize large groups of people in order to pressure those in power, a march in the streets or a gathering of thousands in a public space are not always the first options. Instead, activists on all sides of the political spectrum are using social media and computer technology to leverage their collective strength and organize a mass of faceless supporters.

Every morning when I check my e-mail, the one thing I know will be waiting for me in my inbox is a request from some social action group asking me to sign my name to a petition or write a letter to an elected official. Usually, there are multiple requests from various organizations. Sometimes, I am so flooded with these appeals that I need to unsubscribe from certain mailing lists or else my inbox will be constantly overflowing.

Social media activism has certainly taken off and it is understandable why. By sending out a deluge of emails, groups and organizations are able to keep their members informed about the latest issues and keep constant pressure on those in power. Social media activism also allows these groups to stay active on many more issues, especially immediate ones than they would otherwise be able to if they relied only on postal mailings and occasional meetings.

The sort of activism that the e-mail senders ask me to participate in is exceedingly easy. When I click on the hyperlink embedded in the e-mail I receive, I am brought to a page that includes a finely crafted letter, the addresses of my elected officials, and a set of boxes for me to fill in my name and address. When I click "Send," the letter goes right to the people I'm contacting via e-mail or Twitter. Once I've participated with a particular organization my contact information is usually saved and auto-filled for me; as a result, when I participate in this organization's next action there is nothing for me to do other than to click the "Send" button. I can engage in this form of activism while I'm sitting in bed, walking to class, or having lunch in my office.

Not surprisingly, this sort of activism has come be known as slacktivism or clicktivism. I certainly feel like a bit of slacker when my "activism" consists of using my index finger to press the enter key on the computer. According to the Oxford Dictionary, which just recently added this word, slacktivism is meant to describe the "actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website."

Slacktivism is such a new phenomenon that there are very few articles about it in sociology journals. Still, there is much debate among journalists and bloggers as to whether slacktivism is useful as a tool of social change. Some argue that this form of social media activism allows organizations to mobilize individuals who otherwise may not have the means or inclination to participate in large-scale, in-person gatherings. Moreover, supporters of slacktivism point out that it does something that all social movements need in abundance if people are ever going to act: it raises awareness, and does so quickly.

Others contend that slacktivism and clicktivism are nothing more than a new breed of marketeering where organizers are more interested in boosting their numbers and their brand than they are in cultivating real social change. According to these critics, people whose activism consists of clicking on their smartphones instead of chanting in the streets are merely achieving a smug, self-satisfying lift to their egos instead of bringing about real, concrete change.

The debates about the usefulness of social media activism are even greater for hacktivism—a form of cyber vigilantism in which savvy computer users break into computer systems to advance their social or political agenda. Hacktivists might shut down websites, take over domain names, or engage in cybersecurity breaches in order to obtain confidential information that they believe ought to be publicly known.

Today, the most famous hacktivist group is Anonymous. This international collective of computer hackers has risen to prominence recently with their much publicized release of the names of KKK members and their declaration of war against ISIS after the attacks in Paris. Prior to these campaigns, Anonymous took action in response to other high profile events such as the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and the attacks at Charlie Hebdo. Anonymous has received a lot of attention for their acts of cyber vigilantism but much like slacktivism, the jury is still out as to whether or not these hacktivists actually weaken the scope and reach of extremists groups or are just a bunch of "naïve techno-utopists."


Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the next few years, I imagine we will see quite a few sociology articles and books about these new forms of activism. Those who study social movements and social change will certainly want to gain a deeper understanding of this new phenomenon. But doing this research will not be without its challenges. For one thing, it will be difficult to identify respondents given their facelessness and anonymity. And secondly, it will be tricky to draw causal relationships between the actions of these social media activists and the issues for which they are advocating.

If I were doing this research, I would be interested in exploring the interactive effect between social-media activism and more traditional forms of activism. My anecdotal experience suggests that social media activism might have a "gateway effect" for more hands-on types of actions by providing individuals with a much needed introductory foundation. Social media activism may serve as the mechanism through which individuals are made aware of an issue, become committed to the cause, and then are more likely to heed a call to action by attending a protest rally or march, calling an elected official directly, or speaking out at a public hearing.

But this is just one hypothesis. I imagine many readers of Everyday Sociology have engaged in slacktivism or maybe even hacktivism. What do you think of when you partake in these forms of social media activism? Do you feel like you are accomplishing anything? Are you laying the groundwork for subsequent, in-person actions? Or are you just doing it to feel good about yourself?


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