By Adeola Egbeyemi and Caroline Bredin, Contributors
One like helps clean one beach. Repost on your story to plant 100 trees. Share to save the bees!
Slacktivism is a new and trendy form of online activism that, according to the United Nations, involves “people who support a cause by performing simple measures [but] are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” Slacktivism looks like reposts, retweets and shares on social media with no deeper commitment to the issue at hand. It’s being used increasingly often for social movements.
Slacktivism has developed because of the usage of Web 2.0, a shift to a user-centric internet, allowing individuals to create interactive profiles and share their thoughts, likes and photos. This internet evolution has fostered the growth of opinion leaders, who receive information from media and pass on the content, with their interpretation, to a reachable audience. This is exactly what we see with slacktivism, where large, branded accounts are believed to be opinion leaders and trick a considerable number of individuals into thinking they can passively support a good cause. As Web 2.0 is carefully designed to maximize shared content, it’s not surprising how fast spreading these accounts can be.
To be clear, sharing posts about social movements or global issues does raise awareness of those issues. It may even reflect a deeper desire to create positive change, regardless of whether this desire is actualized outside of social media.
However, there are negative implications of slacktivism that seem to be overshadowing the good. Instagram accounts that claim to be helping an issue can often be deceptive. The Instagram account @plantatreeco, boasting nearly 580,000 followers, is one example that has been subject to scrutiny. In one popular Instagram post, the account promised to donate one dollar for every 100 people who shared the post and followed the account.
Last week, the Huffington Post reported that a number of Instagram accounts promising to donate money to Australian wildfire relief efforts could not prove that they had actually made the donations. Hours after Huffpost reached out to @plantatreeco about allegations that it was a scam, the account provided what appears to be a $3,173.00 receipt of donation to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. However, HuffPost did not receive immediate confirmation of the donations’ authenticity from the NSW Fire Service.
@Plantatreeco also constantly post stories, urging people to visit its website, where they sell jewelry, with no indication that this money is donated anywhere. Additionally, the account has erased all its Instagram content, starting over multiple times. Lastly, the account does not seem to have partnerships, or any other external source of money. These are good indications of fraud because the account is able to jump from planting trees, as their name suggests, to the next popular issue like the wildfires in Australia. This allows them to constantly maintain popularity and page traffic. With no identifiable source of money or partnerships, there is no tangible evidence that they are receiving resources to do what they claim. The account has not issued any statements responding to these concerns. Yet, we see individuals still sharing stories with posts from this account.
It’s a scheme that seems paper-thin, but the fact that we are seeing it occur time and time again says otherwise. Last June, for example, the Instagram pages that sought to increase awareness of the plight of Sudan were, at best, simplifying the complex political issues in the nation. At worst, they were using tragedy to garner social media traffic. Sudan Aid accounts, such as the now-deactivated @savesudanpeople and @sudanmealproject, claimed to donate to Sudan through, for example, one meal for a Sudanese person per like on the post.
But, according to the BBC, “there [was] no evidence that any of the ‘Meal Project’ accounts were going anything at all.” The Meal Project accounts did not respond to these allegations, but are now shut down. Misinformation spread by “Meal Project” accounts was then disseminated by individuals who thought they were promoting positive social change through their shares and reposts.
In the case of immediate disasters, like the current wildfires in Australia, taking time to educate yourself and donating money directly to established causes is your best bet to help. However, after Australia has contained its wildfires, we’ll see slacktivism move to the next issue — beach clean-ups or tree-planting — with a disregard for the reasons why we are seeing fires more often globally. Donating to solve an issue like the wildfires does not prevent it from happening again because does not address the pervasive source of the problem: climate change. Thus, in the case of systematic problems, we should begin to consider supplementing large social media movements with consistent environmental engagement at the personal and local level. Examples of this are volunteering with Zero Waste McMaster, Fridays For Future Hamilton, The Sustainable Future Program or leading an OPIRG project. There’s even a fourth-year Communication Studies course at McMaster that explores the role of media in social activism.
Slacktivism is becoming more prevalent and although awareness is necessary, it is hardly sufficient for change. McMaster University is ranked second in the world for global impact. This ranking means that, as students and navigators of today’s Web 2.0, we should hold ourselves to a high standard when it comes to how we deal with social issues, taking care to read up on issues, being critical of social media pages and looking for local opportunities to effect meaningful change. The most significant threat to modern activism may not be the issues it fights against, but the passive and indifferent “share it and move on” attitude we see forming towards them.