Adding Slacktivism to the Activist's Toolkit: Advocacy Group Perceptions of the Benefits and Drawbacks of Slacktivism

Posted: 14 Mar 2014

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: January 29, 2014

Abstract

In light of a growing interest in the utility of digital activism, this study examines the extent to which advocacy groups perceive slacktivism as an effective tool for advancing activism efforts and effecting political change. Data will be drawn from long interviews that have already been conducted with communication directors at 10 U.S. advocacy groups including: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Arab American Institute, Common Cause, Christian Coalition of America, Free Press, FreedomWorks (Tea Party), NAACP, National Council of La Raza, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and SEIU. Qualitative data will also be drawn from a survey of 116 advocacy organizations operating in the United States and Canada.

The slacktivism concept is based on digital media’s affordance of “weak ties” (Zani & Barrett, 2012, p. 275) and the Internet’s typically low barriers to participation. Critics have referred to slacktivism as ‘activism lite’ and “five-minute activism” (Earl & Kimport, 2011, p. 74), and have suggested that it is nothing more than “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact.” (Morozov, 2009) While proponents of digital activism laud its democratizing function and the ease and speed with which it allows groups to share, cooperate and mobilize outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations (Shirky, 2008; Obar, Zube & Lampe, 2012), the utility of slacktivism - one manifestation of digital activism - remains in question.

Researchers are beginning to address the value of slacktivism. Karpf (2012) argues that slacktivist criticisms “lose their sting when placed within the context of […] advocacy organizations.” (p.8) Earl & Kimport (2011) suggest that slacktivism can be effective because it promotes inclusion by being inexpensive while at the same time enabling “high levels of mobilization in short periods of time.” (p. 74) Cammaerts (2012) posits that slacktivism resonates with many individuals who are limited by other time commitments, and as a result helps to build collective identities and global movements that include individuals who would otherwise not have the time to participate.

A preliminary analysis of this study’s findings suggests that smaller advocacy groups are more likely to be concerned about slacktivism, primarily because of the perceived risks associated with diverting limited resources from more traditional activist tactics known to work. Larger advocacy groups on the other hand, with more resources to experiment with digital activism, suggest that slacktivism can be an important tool of political influence - primarily because of the number of people it can recruit to a cause - and as a result, is quickly earning its place in the activist’s toolkit.

Keywords: Social media, activism, slacktivism, clicktivism, advocacy

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A., Adding Slacktivism to the Activist's Toolkit: Advocacy Group Perceptions of the Benefits and Drawbacks of Slacktivism (January 29, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2387805

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3
Canada

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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