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."
Results, however, can vary widely — depending both on the desired result and on the relationship between the online and offline spaces.
Influencing key players
Last summer, as the U.S. Congress considered the Stop Online Piracy Act to combat online copyright infringement, millions used social media to express their displeasure at what they considered an attack on freedom of speech. People tweeted and changed Facebook profile pictures and other online avatars. Wikipedia blacked out its website for 24 hours in a show of solidarity. The legislation was ultimately postponed, indefinitely.
Obar said slacktivism can be effective when targeted toward specific individuals, particularly policymakers.
"If a million people sign up on Facebook, that can't turn the tide alone, but that's something for (advocacy groups) to bring to policymakers," said Obar.
"In all forms of activism, engagement is one of the most important tools and if these new media technologies can get people engaged then of course they're going to help to advance these initiatives. But the question is, 'What will sway policymakers?'" Obar added.
"Is it just getting lots of people to sign up or is it to get people to submit detailed comments to government dockets? What form of engagement will lead to policy change? Is joining a group just enough?"
It depends on what kind of change the organization is looking for — exposure, money or policy change.
"If you see it as just trying to raise awareness, you're achieving your goal," Allred said. "I think if you're actually trying to affect change and get people to become activists, I think you are better served pursuing other venues."
In the case of UNICEF, the kind of exposure brought on by slacktivism wasn't enough. After working with research company YouGov, UNICEF found that users in Sweden had some "misconceptions" about social media, according to Petra Hallebrant, UNICEF Sweden's director.
"One in 5 thinks that a like on Facebook is a good way of supporting an organization," she said, according to Health Care News. "Two in 3 have liked something on Facebook without caring about the message or issue. One in 7 thinks that liking an organization on Facebook is as good as donating money."
In response to those findings, UNICEF Sweden launched its campaign to show its supporters what it really needs: money.
"Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio," read one online ad. "We have nothing against likes, but vaccines cost money."
Are slacktivists really less likely to engage, volunteer and send money? Or could it be an effective gateway to participation? The jury's still out.
"One of the great things about digital activism is it can engage people who otherwise might not engage in the offline space," said Obar. "When people are participating in activism online, at least they're participating."
Yet there's also concern among experts about a "moral balancing" effect: If someone retweets or signs a petition, they won't feel the need to contribute money or volunteer.
"The concern of course is, 'Do the digital forms of activism take the people and reduce what they're doing to online?' I don't know if digital activism will reduce what otherwise might be strong offline activism, but I think it does have the possibility," Obar said.
According to one study from Michigan State University, those who signed an online petition were more likely to donate to a related cause, while those who didn't sign donated significantly more money to an unrelated cause — signifying that exposure to activism on digital media could trigger more involvement either way.
It can also start a dialogue among friends and family — for good or ill, particularly when the activism involves points of controversy.
"It's very difficult to share stuff like (politics or religion) on social without the good and the bad. You end up having this massive hatefest on your Facebook page," Garst said. "There's no middle ground anymore; there's no compromise. I am concerned that social is going to continue to drive that wedge."
However, by exposing that inner activist, slacktivism can also provide a way to contribute with limited time and resources. Garst said that engaging in causes online does allow for different levels of advocacy, promotion and involvement.
"For most of us, time and money are our enemy," Garst said. "You care about the cause, you do, but how deep does that run? How much time and effort are you really willing to spend?"1 comment on this story
Busy herself, Allred sees slacktivism's appeal. "I don't have a lot of time right now," Allred said. "I hear about these issues, but it doesn't necessarily translate into action on my part. But with slacktivism, somebody has already translated that into an action, however minuscule. It's like, 'Oh, I should take action.' It gets you thinking about it."
"One of the first things (nonprofits) say is social media, digital media allow them to broaden their reach — as a result that opens them up to more opportunity," Obar said. "The question that's unanswered is does that opportunity translate?"