Distinguishing between ‘slacktivism’ and ‘activism’

A portmanteau of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism,’ ‘slacktivism’ has come to mean the practice of signalling support for a cause on social networks in a manner that does not require much time or effort. (Rawpixel pic)

PARIS: Every week, ETX Studio takes a close-up look at a phenomenon that is currently in the news.

Since the death of George Floyd in the US, the world has been swept by a wave of demonstrations against police violence and racism.

In this context, the term “slacktivism” has reappeared on social networks. But what does it mean exactly?

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man from Minneapolis, died of asphyxiation after a white policeman knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The case triggered a worldwide wave of protests against police violence and racism.

On June 2, executives at the American music label Atlantic Records launched the #BlackOutTuesday movement on social networks, which encouraged internet users to insert eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in playlists and to post a picture of a black square on Instagram and Facebook.

The phenomenon, which spread rapidly on the web, was described by some as “slacktivism.”

A portmanteau of “slacker” and “activism,” “slacktivism” has come to mean the practice of signalling support for a cause on social networks in a manner that does not require much time or effort, because it may only involve changing a profile photo, retweeting an article or signing an online petition.

As such, it is distinct from activism, which entails a more time-consuming commitment, expressed, for example, by participating in street demonstrations.

‘Lazy activism’

The word “slacktivism” has a pejorative connotation in as much as it designates a “lazy activism,” which is often manifested by a mass movement, like the one observed in the wake of the January 7 terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, which prompted many internet users to change their profile pictures to display the “Je suis Charlie” slogan.

However, although it may appear shallow, slacktivism does have an impact on the overall success of protest movements — at least that was the conclusion of a 2015 research study published in the journal Plos One.

For the study, American researchers closely examined the impact of content relayed on Twitter during the 2011 Occupy movement in the US, which mainly sought to denounce social and economic inequality, and the 2013 Turkish demonstrations in Istanbul, in opposition to the destruction of Gezi Park.

According to their findings, slacktivists, or as they call them “peripheral users,” play a key role in increasing the reach of protest messages.

“Our analysis suggests that, because of their numbers, peripheral users managed to generate a great deal of activity on Twitter related to this cause,” explained the authors of the publication.

So it seems that activism, even if it is only armchair activism, does have more of an impact than no commitment at all.