“Likes don’t save lives. Money does.” This message flashed on the screen at the end of a commercial for UNICEF Sweden.
“Sometimes I worry that I will get sick, like my mom got sick,” said 10-year-old Rahim, standing in the middle of a barren room accompanied by a younger child. “Then who will take care of my brother? But I think everything will be alright. Today, UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
The video was part of a 2013 ad campaign that confronted a growing issue regarding social movements in which many people appear to be more concerned with publicly declaring their support than actually contributing to a cause by volunteering their time or money.
In other words, “slacktivism.”
Slacktivism has been an increasing trend in online engagement over the past few years, particularly among young people who are active on sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. We often retweet, reblog, like and share posts about social causes and movements that we claim to care about without actually putting in the effort to support them.
Many times, we don’t even take the time to fully understand the causes that we are advocating for.
Due to the inherently vicarious nature of the Internet, people often assume that if they share a post about a social cause, someone will eventually see it and do something about it.
The responsibility is passed off so much that nothing tangible actually gets accomplished.
I myself will admit to having signed quite a few online petitions defending causes I knew little about and endorsing social movements to which I didn’t actually contribute.
That’s not social activism. That’s chain mail.
Slacktivism is no doubt enticing because it provides immediate gratification. It requires minimal effort and impresses our friends by making us look like upstanding individuals. Win-win!
But it doesn’t actually achieve very much. Slacktivism has little effect, and mostly serves to make us feel better about ourselves by convincing others that we’re socially conscious.
Take last year’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Millions of people uploaded videos and photos in which they doused themselves with frigid liquids in order to bring awareness to a degenerative nerve disease.
By creating a viral social media phenomenon, people brought more publicity to an important cause. But of those who participated or watched friends and celebrities pour buckets of ice water over their heads, how many actually contributed to helping the cause or learned anything about ALS beyond the fact that it exists?
I am not claiming that the Ice Bucket Challenge was completely pointless, and by no means do I think that social media does not have a place in social activism.
In fact, my opinion is quite the opposite.
I believe that social media is an immensely powerful tool that, at its best, can be used to inform and bring awareness. It gives a voice to those who are not always heard and fosters conversation among groups and individuals that might otherwise not have been able to come into contact.
Social media allows us to question and criticize and interact and share ideas. It expands the beauty of communication beyond traditional barriers and borders. By using outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr as the foundation by which we organize social movements, we can have a greater reach than was ever possible.
Because the Internet and social media contain such a wealth of information, we can use them to more fully research the social causes we are trying to engage in and thus become more aware about what we can do to actually make a difference.
However, social media participation is not a panacea that will solve all of the world’s problems. Supporting social causes requires more than just awareness – it necessitates active participation.
In the modern era, we can no longer afford to think that social media and real-world social engagement are mutually exclusive. Instead, they are interdependent, necessary to supplement one another in order to make the biggest impact.
Take a social media campaign at this school, for example. Last year, in response to the discriminatory atmosphere on campus, several students turned to Facebook to start a photo campaign called “I, Too, Am Lehigh,” in which students posed with signs featuring quotes of microaggressions they witnessed or experienced at Lehigh.
They used this media outlet to make known the grievances of many who felt marginalized or oppressed by prejudice. In doing so, they initiated an important dialogue among members of the Lehigh community.
By using social media to supplement their movement rather than substitute it, these students were able to bring awareness to important issues that needed attention, whilst simultaneously enabling a forum that empowered people to both listen and be heard.
You can’t fix the world with just a click. If that were possible, it would have been done by now, and we’d be living in a utopia.
Impactful social activists do not make waves by sitting idly by, waiting for someone else to take charge. These people have significant influence because they are willing to actively participate in and fight for the causes they are passionate about.
By using the various media tools and platforms that are readily available to us to become informed about and actively engage in causes that are dear to us, we, too, can make important impacts and reach people in ways that were previously inconceivable.
After all, actions speak louder than “likes.”