So, You Want to be an Activist?
The notion of being an activist is not a new concept in America — or, even around the world — but, the nature of protests, demonstrations, and other actions taken by activists who want to influence a positive change has shifted since the Internet began to gain popularity in the 1990s. Mike Sliwinski, a writer for Law Street Media, introduces his readers to this evolution in The Evolution of Activism: From the Streets to Social Media:
Beginning in the 20th century and taking focus during Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement, the notion of non-violent resistance came to the forefront. While this certainly did not lead to the end of physical confrontations between protestors and those they protested against, it signaled a shift in the tactics used by protest groups. But with the rise
of personal computers and the internet, protests have shifted again, with protestors moving from the physical world to virtual.¹
But, if you are new to activism or digital activism, you may be asking yourself — how can I make a positive contribution to a cause digitally without hurting the efforts of other activists? This is a genuine concern when activists start implementing the use of social media, email, or online petitions into their strategy because the idea is to stray away from being labeled as a slacktivist. In a Washington Post article, Laura Seay defines slacktivism for potential activists as “activities [that] pose a minimal cost to participants; one click on Facebook or retweet on Twitter and the slacktivist can feel that he or she has helped to support the cause.”² This is exactly what you don’t want to become when you are passionate about a cause, because it can negatively affect the movement you are so passionate about. Throughout the rest of this guide, you will learn how to use social media to supplement your overall strategy. By implementing effective Facebook, Twitter, and online petition strategies into your overall plan, you can avoid being labeled as a slacktivist.
But, before you continue reading, I want to ask you a question — is slacktivism a good or a bad thing? Some view slacktivism as an antagonist to activists that make a solid effort to participate, but others believe that if you can get someone to contribute, no matter how little the effort, it can still help your cause. Watch the Ted Talk below given by Karen McAlister for some outside perspective on how hijacking activists’ hashtags can get in the way of the cause:
Facebook, the Social Network.
Of the social networks available, Facebook has more powerful tools available for activists to use than any of the others. Some of the tools available to you on Facebook are:
- Live Videos
- Low-Cost Advertising
- Donation Apps
- Online Stores
- Town Hall
- Call-to-Action Buttons
- …and, much more!
While I don’t have the space to give you details on how each of these elements can help you leverage your social campaign, what I want you to take away is that the possibilities are endless with the tools available to you on Facebook. There is a very low chance you can do too much with Facebook to contribute to a cause, but doing too little is quite easy.
The “Save Darfur” movement was one of the largest causes that attempted to use Facebook to increase awareness and involvement about the atrocities in Darfur. But, years later, many experts determined their collective efforts on Facebook was a complete miss. In an academic article in Sociological Science, researchers looked at the statistics of recruitment and donations received only through their Facebook efforts. You can see the statistics they gathered in Figure 1 below.
You can see clearly from the above graph that despite having over one million individuals in their organization, they received less than $100,000 in donations.
Our analysis reveals an inverse relationship between broad online social movement mobilization and deep participation. Despite the chorus of voices touting the transformative (and even democratizing) potential of social media, when it came to recruiting for — and donating to — the Save Darfur cause, the most popular social network site in the world appears to have hardly mattered.³
But, what’s important to realize is that these researchers looked at Facebook and only Facebook. They stated in the article that their results here are affected by the fact that they were only looking at one small piece of the picture.
Results of this analysis should be kept in perspective. The exceptional precision of our behavioral data (on recruitment relations, donation amounts, and accompanying time stamps for both) was offset by the complete absence of demographic information on Cause participants or even their geographic locations. Importantly, our findings also pertain to only a single movement using a single platform.³
And, from my perspective, another thing they didn’t look at is what tools these activists used for recruitment, donations, and other participation. Were they using everything at their fingertips? It’s likely that many of the participants were slacktivists that were only sharing links or liking content on other activists’ pages. Because this type of activity wasn’t measured, we can’t say for sure, but we can decide that more could have been done. And, just because change can’t be forced by sharing an article or an online petition, it doesn’t mean that Facebook can’t be an effective tool for your use in your own social campaign.
The critique of ineffectiveness, most recently offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, concentrates on examples of what has been termed “slacktivism,” whereby casual participants seek social change through low-cost activities, such as joining Facebook’s “Save Darfur” group, that are long on bumper-sticker sentiment and short on any useful action. The critique is correct but not central to the question of social media’s power; the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively. Recent protest movements — including a movement against fundamental vigilantes in India in 2009, the beef protests in South Korea in 2008, and protests against educational
laws in Chile in 2006 — have used social media not as a replacement for real-world action but as a way to coordinate it.⁴
If you look at the big picture, change is possible when you change your perspective about Facebook. Don’t look at it as the only way to reach your audience. Create an entire plan that involves more than just sharing articles, asking for donations, or creating a Facebook group. These things will help your cause, but if you stop there, so does your cause.
Activism in 240 Characters or Less.
Another powerful social media outlet for your activism efforts is Twitter. While it doesn’t have as many tools as Facebook does, activists on Twitter have proven it can be much more powerful within the confines of a low character limit. If you have used social media in the past several years, you have more than likely heard of the Occupy movement that gained popularity in 2011 on Twitter. What’s interesting about this case study is that social media created this movement, rather than just complementing it. An academic article in Social Science Research explains the beginnings of this movement — “the Twitter post summoned a few hundred people to Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, and within two weeks, the movement quickly spread from New York to other major cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles.”⁵
Their message can be seen below in Figure 2:
And, this is only one of many protests that took place around the world that was initiated by that Twitter post. But, it’s important to realize that it wasn’t just activists’ efforts on Twitter or other social media outlets that made the Occupy movement possible. There were many other elements and strategies that took place. Suh’s article goes on to talk about how the opposition played a powerful role in this movement as well. He goes on to propose that “an increase in the number of repression events at protest sites is positively associated with the likelihood of future protests in other cities.”⁵ While this type of activity can’t be planned for your own cause, it is something you can rely on to help your cause. In Occupy’s case, it not only provoked protests in hundreds of cities around the United States, but it also inspired cities in other countries to organize. This probably wasn’t a planned effect, but it certainly raised the volume on the message in Figure 2 — “We ARE the 99%.”
And, just like the take-away from the Facebook case study of the Save Darfur movement, we can also see from the Twitter activists’ efforts for Occupy, that action doesn’t stop with a social media campaign. In Occupy’s case, it started there, but it continued to grow online and offline because of a variety of factors.
In an academic article in New Media & Society, researchers outlined several ways Twitter allowed activists to amplify their voices:
In total, we identified seven overlapping roles: facilitating face-to-face protests via advertisements and donation solicitations; live reporting from face-to-face protests; forwarding news links and retweets; expressing personal opinions regarding the movement; engaging in discussion about the movement; making personal connections with fellow activists; and facilitating online-based actions.⁷
As you can see from their research, it wasn’t just social media that allowed Occupy to be so successful, it was what social media was able to facilitate. These activities can be done without social media, but having all these elements in one location provides an incredibly powerful tool for an activist.
But, What About Online Petitions?
Another tool at your disposal as a new activist are online petitions. Websites such as Change.org (http://www.change.org), The Petition Site (http://www.thepetitionsite.com), Petition Online (http://www.petitiononline.com), Go Petition (http://www.gopetition.com), and iPetitions (http://www.ipetitions.com) offer platforms which will allow you to easily create and share petitions through social media, email, text messaging, and other virtual media. But, how effective are they? Much like we’ve discussed with Facebook and Twitter, their effectiveness depends on what other efforts you put forward.
In his article in New York Times, Christopher Mele touches lightly on how an online petition on websites can benefit your movement — “worldwide, Change.org users claim one victory per hour, A.J. Walton, a spokesperson for the online petition forum, said in an interview.”⁸ And, other interviews Mele conducted for this article point to a more important role online petitions serve for someone wanting to inspire change.
The biggest benefit from a petition is raised awareness, Jason Del Gandio, a professor of communications and social movements at Temple University in Philadelphia, said in an interview. “In some ways it’s just the updated version of the letter-writing campaign to a representative that has been going on for years,” he said.⁸
So, while traditional petitions signed by registered voters can be more powerful alone with the same number of signatures, an online petition has a much larger purpose than getting a bill to pass in Congress or influencing a member of the government to pursue impeaching the President.
Beyond seeking change, petitions serve other important functions, such as mobilizing supporters and reinforcing views, Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy initiatives at the State University of New York at Paltz, said in an interview.⁸
In this way, a Change.org petition can leverage the same power that any other social media network can, if it is used effectively. But, just like the Facebook and Twitter case studies above, successful online petitions didn’t stop at the petition. They require a lot more work — both online and offline — to ensure your message is heard.
In an article in Dame Magazine, Nona Willis Aronowitz asks the question — “how much difference can a signature make?”⁹ She answers her own question with petitions that have inspired real change. For instance, “Cindy Butterworth, a 60-year-old high school library assistant in Rochester, NY, started a petition urging Verizon to reconsider their refusal to waive their cancellation fees for domestic violence victims.” ₉ Not only did Butterworth get a lot of signatures, but it helped her make a difference for victims of domestic violence. “Her petition eventually garnered 200,000 signatures and Verizon reversed its decision.”⁹ But, in Butterworth’s case, she didn’t stop with the petition. “[She] had spoken with Verizon multiple times and eventually used a personal connection to get the attention of a Verizon executive.”⁹ So, these things don’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t just launch a social media campaign or an online petition and expect amazing results. You must implement these efforts into the much bigger picture. Think it through, get social, and act. That’s how change is made.
Go Beyond Social Media!
While Facebook, Twitter, and online petitions are three of the most popular ways to get active online, the reach of the Internet does not stop there. If you want to get serious about your cause, there are tools and services that can assist you with quickly and easily publishing a website or a blog. You can also launch an email marketing campaign, use text messaging on your mobile phone, start an online newsletter about your cause, do research about your cause, contact government officials that have the power to set change into action, and much more. Slacktivists may see a cause on social media as a way to care about something without putting in much effort, but an activist sees it as a true opportunity to get involved in something that’s bigger than their own life. All this combined may seem overwhelming if you’re just starting your journey as an activist, but just like the change you seek — your influence won’t happen overnight. You can get started by initiating a dialogue on social media, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or outside social media, it must start somewhere before a change can be made.
The Internet offers several venues for dialogue and debate on policy issues. These include email, newsgroups, web forums, and chat. Discussions can be confined to closed groups, for example through email, as well as open to the public. Some media sites offer web surfers the opportunity to comment on the latest stories and current issues and events. Government officials and domain experts may be brought in to serve as catalysts for discussion, debate issues, or answer questions. Discussions can even take place on web sites that themselves lack facilities.¹⁰
But, don’t stop at the discussion. With the power of social media, you have an opportunity to create awareness among others, and by doing so, fuel the fire for the cause you want to become active in.
Figure 4 sums up the difference between a slacktivist and an activist well — realize that a hashtag or a post on social media can’t save anyone, but it can alert others to what’s happening around the world or in their own backyard. Social media is merely a starting point that allows you as a future activist to start the discussion. What you do after the hashtag is what can prevent you from becoming a slacktivist.
1: Sliwinski, Michael. “The Evolution of Activism: From the Streets to Social Media.” Law Street Media: Law & Policy for Our Generation, 12 Jan. 2016, http://www.lawstreetmedia.com/issues/politics/evolution-activism-streets-social-media. Accessed 11 April 2018.
2: Seay, Laura. “Does Slacktivism Work?” The Washington Post: Democracy Dies in Darkness, 12 March 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/12/does-slacktivism-work. Accessed 19 April 2018.
3: Lewis, Kevin, Kurt Gray, and Jens Meierhenrich. “The Structure of Online Activism.” Sociological Science, vol. 1, no. 1, 18 Feb. 2014, pp. 1–9. Directory of Open Access Journals, doi: 10.15195/v1.a1.
4: Shirky, Clay. “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change.” Foreign Affairs, Jan.-Feb. 2011, p. 28.
5: Suh, Chan S, Ion Bogdan Vasi, and Paul Y Chang. “How social media matter: Repression and the diffusion of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” Social Science Research, vol. 65, July 2017, pp. 282–293. ScienceDirect, doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2017.01.004.
6: Unknown Photographer. “Occupy Wall Street Protesters demonstrate in New York on Tuesday.” CNN: Breaking News, 13 Oct. 2011, i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/111014122911-occupy-wall-street-park-avenue-millionaire-s-protest-story-top.jpg.
7: Penney, Joel and Caroline Dadas. “(Re)Tweeting in the Service of Protest: Digital Composition and Circulation in the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” New Media & Society, vol. 16, no. 1, 15 March 2015, pp. 75–90: Sage Journals, doi: 0.1177/1461444813479593.
8: Mele, Christopher. “Online Petitions Take Citizen Participation to New Levels. But Do They Work?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/us/online-petitions-activism.html, 28 Dec. 2016. Accessed 15 April 2018.
9: Aronowitz, Nona Willis. “Does Change.org Really Change Anything?” Dame Magazine, http://www.damemagazine.com/2013/11/18/does-changeorg-really-change-anything, 18 Nov. 2013. Accessed 15 April 2018.
10: Denning, Dorothy E. “Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy.” Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. Rand, 2001.