The age of 'slacktivism': Online advocacy has many supporters and detractors

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 11:28 p.m. MDT

While traditional advocacy includes activities like rallies, letter writing, fundraising and boycotts, activism online typically includes activities like signing petitions, retweeting on Twitter, re-posting on websites, liking things on Facebook or changing avatar information to reflect support for a cause.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Last week, Lisa Allred signed her first online petition.

"I usually sneer at (online activism)," said the 24-year-old resident of Provo. "I feel like it has a placebo effect — it is meant to make people feel like they're affecting change and doing good, without having to do anything that gets (them) out of their comfort zone."

But when Disney released "Brave" heroine Merida's princess makeover, fans and parents took to the Web to express their displeasure at the now glittery and "sexified" version of what was once an independent, mold-breaking heroine. Their efforts included gathering more than 230,000 signatures for a petition on Change.org. One of them was Allred's.

"I feel really conflicted about it. If it's something that gets me riled up, I should have the guts to find out a way I can actually affect change, (not just sign an online petition)," Allred said.

Meanwhile in Sweden, another type of organization was feeling the sting of questionable online advocacy. UNICEF Sweden launched an ad campaign urging would-be digital do-gooders to give financially instead of "liking" pages on Facebook.

"Likes don't save lives," was the message. "Money does."

Dubbed "slacktivism" or "quicktivism," advocacy through social media has both supporters and detractors. Is it a placebo or can likes make a difference?

The rise of social media

As of December 2012, the Pew Research Center reports that 67 percent of online adults are using social media worldwide, and more than 2 billion people (children and adults) use social media worldwide.

Nonprofits are pursuing this audience in the social space. In 2012, 93 percent of U.S. nonprofits reported using at least one social network presence.

"Social media is the communication vehicle," said Kim Garst, an independent social media and branding strategist. "In the past it's been so hard mobilizing large numbers of people behind a cause — they've relied a lot on traditional media covering it, growing community by community."

While traditional advocacy includes activities like rallies, letter writing, fundraising and boycotts, activism online typically includes activities like signing petitions, retweeting on Twitter, re-posting on websites, liking things on Facebook or changing avatar information to reflect support for a cause.

Organizations are chiefly using social media users to spread their messages, though they're not necessarily calling them to action. While 93 percent of online nonprofits reported using social media for marketing, only about half reported using social media for fundraising or other actions, according to the 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Report.

Yet traditional advocacy is not dead, at least not according to Jonathan Obar, visiting assistant professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University.

"Quite often when scholars (or) critics look at a new technology, they ask, 'Is it going to replace the previous technology, so the previous technology doesn't have to be used anymore? (Or will it fail)?' " Obar said. "The truth is neither of those things are the case. Generally speaking, they end up supplementing."

"People have to realize these groups are not going to change everything and drop everything and go completely online. The groups will continue to use a variety of strategies, and the digital activism will just be one component of their strategies, of their toolkit. ... They still organize public events in the offline space," Obar said.

"These new forms of activism are an additional set of tools. Some of them are very excited about these tools because they're seeing results."

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