Social networking has grown in popularity in the last decade, and so has the number of people using the likes of Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness of the latest social cause. Many people became familiar with Kony 2012, #BringBackOurGirls and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge when they exploded on their news feeds. Ebola awareness also found a place in social media when Facebook recently displayed a message at the top of users’ feeds asking them to donate to organizations working in West Africa. But when campaigns like these gain traction, critics often discount them as “armchair activism” or “slacktivism” — mocking the fact that this brand of activism relies on social media trends to thrive. Admittedly, some people only engage in these trends to garner Facebook likes, but this is still a small price to pay for the awareness the campaigns raise. Despite disapproval, armchair activism can be a useful organizing technique.
Criticism of low-effort activism centers on the idea that sharing an image or using a hashtag to draw attention to a social cause is unlikely to make a real-world impact. It is also argued that the practice instills a false sense of having made a difference. There is some validity to these critiques. No one would say that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — the disease that prompted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — is less of a problem because many individuals learned about it through Facebook. It is unlikely that those who tweeted using #BringBackOurGirls expected social media alone to rescue the over 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram last April. Although these campaigns may not completely eradicate the issue, they do achieve two crucial aims: they generate charity and attention from people who may not have heard about the issues otherwise, and they normalize the practice of using social networks to draw attention to causes.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of online activism is that it is subject to the whims of current popularity. While Facebook’s featured post about Ebola may correspond with trending news, there are other health concerns that are denied attention because they do not receive comparable coverage. Around 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year, yet Ebola is at the forefront of armchair activism.
Although armchair activism is an imperfect way of raising money, it is still a valuable one. The alternative to slacktivism is not traditional activism for most people — more often than not, the alternative is doing nothing. While slacktivism alone will not entirely solve issues like disease or terrorism, the public awareness it brings to these problems is nonetheless beneficial. Armchair activism still has its place and is an increasingly crucial part of social movements.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 11 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]