With the help of sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, Tumblr and Instagram, social media users everywhere can become activists, or “slactivists,” depending on perspective. All it takes now is one click.
Activism no longer requires physical protest. Students are often content to share the latest New York Times op-ed to support a particular view or change their profile pictures to express solidarity with a cause. But that doesn’t mean Twitter is replacing the picket sign.
According to Sebastian Valenzuela, a professor at the Pontificial Catholic University of Chile who has done extensive research on online activism, people today often use social media to help bolster traditional activism, and vice versa.
Northwestern has seen its fair share of traditional protest: In May 1970, students barricaded Sheridan Road outside of Scott Hall for a week to protest the Vietnam War. Last February, student group Alianza led a walkout from Tech to the Rock, which was painted black in support of a Northwestern employee who experienced racism at work. Coverage of the protest spread on social media, generating a ripple effect throughout the community and bringing greater attention to the issue.
Activism is evolving because of the Internet’s ability to spread information, facilitate discussions and spark action. Valenzuela says social media acts as a news hub for seasoned and unseasoned protestors, helping spread information about events. Then, individuals trade opinions or join causes online before taking their interest to the street.
“You can read about stuff, but if you don’t engage in the content, it’s less likely you’ll protest,” Valenzuela says. “Just because most people are on social media doesn’t mean they’ll protest.”
But some are skeptical of social media-based activism, calling it “slactivism.” Critics say those who protest using social media do so regardless of whether their efforts have any effect. McCormick sophomore Boochi Kashinkunti admits he has “supported” causes by “liking” them on Facebook. “It’s a minute effort that makes you feel better about yourself,” he says.
Valenzuela questions the notion that online activism is inferior to offline activism and that online activists are lazy. If it’s more convenient to donate online, he asks, why walk to the nearest donation box to give the same amount of aid?
He says regardless of technology’s presence, individuals who claim to support a cause will always exist. But there will also always be those like Mauricio Maluff Masi (WCAS ‘13), who says social media enables protesters to be “little journalists” who broadcast what they witness to the world. Masi has been politically inclined since age 14, when he lived in Paraguay and protested an initiative to change the country’s constitution. This past summer, he participated in fast food workers’ national wage protests, even helping to shut down a Subway restaurant in Chicago for a day by convincing employees to walk out.
But Masi doesn’t consider himself an activist when he posts a status or changes a profile picture. Instead, doing so means he’s supporting the work of another. Regarding the recent controversial abortion bill in Texas that state Sen. Wendy Davis famously filibustered, he says the Internet allowed him to identify with the cause from afar.
“I can’t go to Texas, but [social media] is a way for me support activism,” he says. “I see it [more] as solidarity with their activism than as me being an activist.”
According to Valenzuela, online activism is not a replacement for offline activism—rather, an online protest can be a complement. Sometimes, online activism serves to generate offline action, like in an election. At other times, online activism can do the bulk of the work, such as its role in protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act. In that case, big-name sites like Wikipedia protested through blackouts.
But there is a danger to online activism. This form of activism can threaten the foundations of a democracy, Valenzuela says. People often forget that social media sites are run by private companies who have their own interests—for example, Google agreed to be censored by the Chinese government in order to have access to consumers in China, Valenzuela says.
Another danger is that a socioeconomic gap emerges when activism requires access to a computer. The opinions of Internet users typically do not accurately reflect the whole.
Furthermore, online activists often end up simply preaching to the choir. Spreading a message among like-minded individuals doesn’t actually accomplish anything. In fact, Valenzuelasaysthatitactually drives groups apart because people tend to “reject dissent.”
That’s why Masi urges activists not to forget the power of traditional activism.“Whocares if you change your profile picture? Groups of friends are segregated by political opinion already,” he says. “If you change your profile picture, your friends probably already agree with you. When you’re at the march, people on the street have to hear you.”