The recent case of the widely viewed Kony 2012 video created by activist group Invisible Children shows that people care enough about world issues to spread the word, but also highlights the issue of slacktivism.
The pervasiveness of Facebook makes it a natural outlet for more than the posting of funny cat pictures or mild cyber stalking;it is a legitimate venue for people to vent their displeasure at social injustice. What has happened, though, is that social media has turned social activism into a mockery of itself. The new era of slacktivism, the panacea that clicking “like” or updating a status bar will cure ills or change minds, has allowed slacker activists to hide behind a veil of satisfaction while effectively doing nothing.
What do people do after they watch videos like Kony 2012?
Most of the time, they do nothing. Social media has made it easier for people to share their beliefs as long as it does not require much effort or commitment.
Interactivity is a hallmark of the digital information age and especially social media with its connections based on “likes” and “friends.” This is a false connectivity, based on tenuous relationships that are often formed only because of the disconnection allowed by the anonymity of the internet.
The same holds true for much of the activism on the web. People voice their opinions so strongly and so quickly because they really have very little to lose. They become ‘activists’ because it is easy to do so, and this can lead to the onset of narcotizing dysfunction - where people become so inured to the repetitive reports about a particular problem that they feel merely knowing about the issue becomes a suitable surrogate for taking action. In effect, their passion atrophies into apathy.
Such apathy is reflected in the voting patterns of millenials. Of U.S. citizens age 18 to 24 only 58.5 percent (just over 15 million people) were registered to vote in 2008. In comparison, within this demographic, there are over 50 million users of Facebook. The result is that among a large portion of American youth, registered users of Facebook outnumber registered users of democracy by 35 million.
As a means of spreading messages and influencing sentiments, social media can do great things. Many of the events that drove change during the Arab Spring, such as the rallies in Tahrir Square, were aided by the use of social media. The key point being that they were assisted, what actually brought about change was the protest people in the streets that used their actual voices to call for reform.
Malcolm Gladwell has noted that while social media is such a good tool for mobilizing people because it is a network that enables people to find others with similar sympathies, it often lacks the hierarchy necessary to make tactical and strategic decisions that favor those sympathies. He made this point well before the Occupy Movement took off which so clearly showed that mass organizations based on consensus often became too busy battling themselves to effectively battle any outside forces.
In the end, it is important to see social media for what it is – a means to an end. Reposting someone else’s sentiment as a status update or “liking” a particular comment or page does very little in and of itself. It takes a concerted effort to do something substantial and affect positive change in the world. Continue to hit the “like” button, but remember that actually doing something is what matters.