Do you post about politics on social media to give the appearance of being politically involved? You may be what is known as a “slacktivist,” a “clicktivist,” or an armchair activist. However, these terms imply that online involvement replaces other forms of political organizing, and that posting about politics online doesn’t make a difference. Both of these assumptions have been proven false.
According to a June 2018 study conducted by Pew Research, some 64% of Americans felt that the statement, "Social media helps give a voice to underrepresented groups," described those sites very or somewhat well. However, a larger percentage of respondents said they believed social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important, and 71% agreed with the assertion that "social media makes people believe they're making a difference when they really aren't."
“People who rely exclusively on social media to advocate causes are just plain lazy, and self-righteous," James R. Bailey, a professor at George Washington University School of Business, tells Forbes. "Triggering and sustaining meaningful change is arduous stuff. It's more about deeds than words. These days, words are cheaper than ever."
There is genuine reason to criticize performative activism, and to make sure people who call themselves activists are actually responding to calls from marginalized communities to show up and help fight. As movements like Black Lives Matter are commodified and “ACAB” starts appearing on stickers and clothing, it is important to make sure our activism is actually helping to dismantle systems of oppression and centering marginalized voices. We cannot only be anti- racist when it conveniences us or when it has become an aesthetic. Social media is often where this performative action takes place, and where someone looking for validation will try to garner praise.
Social media has played a significant role in modern movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. According to the New York Times, BLM became the largest racial justice movement in U.S. history with little warning, many of the largest protests not even planned ahead of time. To me, this is the clearest evidence that BLM is more of a shift in consciousness than a campaign with a clear beginning and end.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explores this difference in The New Yorker, explaining that a “digitally networked public sphere” has come to shape modern social movements. Whereas “older movements had to build their organizing capacity first,” Tufekci argues, “modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first protest or march.” Almost overnight, guides for safe protesting, anti-racist literature, links to bail funds, scripts for contacting public officials, and many other helpful forms of activist media were circulated. “The real-world effects of Occupy, the Women’s March, and even Ferguson-era B.L.M. were often underwhelming,” writes Tufekci. “By contrast, since George Floyd’s death, cities have cut billions of dollars from police budgets; school districts have severed ties with police; multiple police-reform-and-accountability bills have been introduced in Congress; and cities like Minneapolis have vowed to defund policing.” This model also provides hope for past racial justice causes that were destabilized by the assassination, jailing, or mysterious murders of their leaders. Today, while it is certainly important to have strong leaders, there are no figureheads that can be shot down to dissolve the organizing strategy and morale. The downside, according to Tufekci, is that these types of movements can lead to “tactical freezes” since they are leaderless and led by a general consciousness instead of a careful strategy.
It is also assumed that people post on social media as a replacement for “real activism.” However, studies have shown that if someone is showing up to the fight online, they are likely showing up offline, too. According to Science Magazine, sharing information about politics on social media predicts offline political activities such as attending political meetings, contacting public officials, and donating money to campaigns.
The narrative that posting online does nothing to further a movement is also false. As Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles write in “#HashtagActivism,” social media creates a platform for a “counterpublic,” in which voices excluded from “elite media spaces” can engage “alternative networks of debate.” Not only has the gap between journalists and the public been bridged as they interact on social media, but movements no longer rely on mainstream media to pick up their story—anyone can become their own journalist as they curate articles and firsthand accounts by liking and retweeting. This means that marginalized voices have a platform that has never existed before. The Overton window, or range of socially acceptable policies and political ideologies, seems wider now than many of us can remember, with concepts like police abolition becoming common discourse and white supremacy being named for what it is. “When moments of rupture occur, this counterpublic can more readily make mainstream interventions,” Tufekci writes. I have watched the seams of our society tear open with events like the infamous Brock Turner trial, Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, and now the murder of George Floyd. Each time, I have learned new things as conversation erupts, especially for those of us who have not experienced these specific oppressions.
The internet can also connect marginalized people that would never have met otherwise, and introduce folks to new spaces, discourses, and ideologies that are less popular or even outright suppressed. I know that as someone who grew up in a small conservative town in southern New Hampshire, I primarily learned about feminism through social media. I followed other people who were angry about things I had always been angry about, but I was also forced to examine my privilege for the first time. If I hadn’t gotten a smartphone in high school, I’m not sure how else I would have found people like me in a town where I felt so alienated.
Clicktivism is also more accessible than in-person protest. There are many more ways to spark change, and as Charlotte Boulton writes for Voice Magazine, “Physicality doesn’t prove passion.” This comes from our society’s idea that immediately effective action is the only productive action, and that productivity constitutes someone’s worth. “Practically, it may be difficult to travel alone or to navigate an area lacking in ramps, hearing aid loops or other forms of assistance,” Boulton writes. “People may need regular breaks, a space to take regular medication, or need somewhere to sit after standing for long periods of time.” Mental health conditions and chronic pain can also make a long day at a noisy, chaotic march difficult. Social media apps often have visual and audio accessibility settings, and can generally provide a space for disabled people to make their voices heard where they are less likely to be spoken over. Accessibility for other demographics should also be considered, such as socioeconomic status; attending a protest can require unrealistic sacrifices like taking off work, finding childcare, and paying for transportation or parking. There are many ways to get involved remotely, such as planning and organizing, contacting public officials, and sharing educational resources. These are all crucial steps in the process.
However, right-wing activists have become far more adept at manipulating the mainstream media than the left. According to Science Magazine, while the left engages in “hashtag activism” by sharing petitions, GoFundMe's, and resources for activists, the techniques of the alt-right include “trolling,” strategic disinformation, and the dissemination of their dogwhistles into mainstream conservative spaces and news outlets. As a surge of nationalism across Europe and the United States overtakes mainstream politics, alt-right public figures gain a larger influence. Their dogwhistles become normalized political lingo, like the antisemitic term “globalist” making its way from alt-right sites like VDARE to less overtly nationalist platforms like Breitbart and Fox News, and eventually to the New York Times where it evolved into a synonym for “neoconservative.” While this manipulation and misinformation is scary, it is evidence of the power of online discourse, even in niche spaces.
Leaders have been on the ground for generations to build the Black Lives Matter that we know today. Before these movements become mainstream, dedicated leaders build the foundations and begin to chip away at the system before the public takes to the streets. Although the Black Lives Matter movement may seem unorganized on a national level, concrete changes have happened city by city. The movement may often seem watered down by the masses of performative liberal activists and the moderate reform bills that our elected officials want to focus on. The reforms in the new George Floyd Act passed by the House of Representatives would not have even saved George Floyd’s life. But the strongest foundations are located at the grassroots level, and we must strengthen these pillars if we want to play the long game.
It can be easy to get burned out when we’re constantly scrolling through our friends’ commentary on various social issues. While I believe strongly that, overall, the information age and digital era have given me vital tools as a marginalized person, weeding through all the discourse online can have an emotional toll. I think that only engaging in “clicktivism” won’t give you the same fulfilling community impact as getting involved locally, but I believe there are unique strengths to social media for uniting marginalized groups and furthering our cause, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. People will inevitably give you shit for being a “slacktivist” no matter how dedicated you are, but I think the connection that social media provides is the perfect kindling for inevitable social and political change.