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Adelle Rodda on slacktivism, & why it can work

Humans are inherently empathetic; the capacity to relate to the suffering of others, as well as other species, is something that comes naturally to most of us. It’s a trait that largely guides our own personal moral compass, so much so that when asked to help put an end to environmental injustice we feel compelled to take actions to assist the cause, or at the very least show compassion or outrage.

En masse, this inclination towards righting wrongs can and has been used as a loud and powerful force to compel individuals, industries and governments to change their behaviours. Public outcry following the release of Rachel Carson’s seminal book A Silent Spring led to a ban on the agricultural use of the infamous toxic pesticide DDT in the US in 1972, for example, and a further worldwide ban in 2001. Australia’s recent victory against Japan’s so-called ‘scientific’ whaling in the International Court of Justice is another of many examples of what environmental activism can achieve.

The rise of social media has made it possible to reach a broad audience faster than ever before. Facebook, Twitter and the like have enabled environmental organisations, advocates and activists to spread the word about their various causes like wildfire. It’s never been easier or cheaper to raise public awareness around environmental issues, or to name and shame bad companies and business practices, sketchy governmental policies and other transgressions. But is online activism actually effective? Do likes and shares translate to real, offline changes?

There are many critiques of online activism that label it slacker activism or ‘slacktivism’ and ‘clicktivism’ – where hitting the like button, signing an online petition, or retweeting and hashtagging current cause célèbres replaces true activism. If raising awareness is an environmental campaign’s only goal, then so-called slacktivists are the ideal army, but if that cause needs donations or volunteers – as is the case with most – does social media actually generate a tangible response?

Critics of organisations and groups that utilise slacktivism to garner support suggest that doing so lulls social media users into a false sense that they are helping to change the world from the comfort of their iPhone or computer. The argument being that slacktivists are more likely to avoid involvement in real-world action, because they have already helped to save the rainforest and take down corporate environmental baddies in their lunchbreak.

Others see online activism in a more positive light, believing it engages a wider, more diverse audience because it appeals to those who may otherwise never have supported an environmental cause through their own volition. Clicking, sharing or liking is the easiest way for someone to feel like they are being active in making the world a better place – even if it’s superficial – and dipping one’s toes in the water by signing an online petition or two could lead to more active involvement with environmental causes offline – slacktivism could be the gateway drug to harder, real-world activism.

Another gripe that some activists have with environmental social media campaigns is that they employ the same advertising and marketing tactics as the very industries that are causing environmental problems in the first place. Some voice concerns that environmental movements built in this way measure their success with metadata – the number of likes, shares and views a campaign generates – rather than actual real-world impacts. But if a campaign yields the results it set out to achieve, does it really matter how it was done? And, surely beating corporate polluters at their own game makes the victory all the sweeter.

A prime example of sweet, real-world victory through slacktivism was in 2010, when Greenpeace – paragon of effective social media campaigns – forced chocolate Goliath Nestlé to stop buying its palm oil from companies that destroyed the rainforest to obtain it. Greenpeace posted a slick and harrowing parody of a Kit Kat advert on YouTube – where a tired office worker bites into a Kit Kat with orangutan fingers in place of chocolate ones – and encouraged the global online community to pressure Nestlé into switching to sustainable palm oil using Facebook, Twitter and emailing the chocolate company’s CEO.

Nestlé had the video removed from YouTube citing copyright infringements, which, to the dismay of the Kit Kat-makers, had the complete opposite of the desired effect. Greenpeace retaliated by posting the video on Vimeo, where it had nearly 80,000 views in just a few hours, and further uploads of the video by slacktivists caused it to go viral. After only two more months, the success of this social media campaign, coupled with some on-the-ground activism, saw Nestlé give in to Greenpeace’s demands and ditch their rainforest-wrecking palm oil suppliers for sustainable alternatives.

It seems that the real issue is not whether online activism really ‘works’ or not, and chances are so-called slacktivism and clicktivism aren’t really doing any harm anyway – even if they don’t always lead to any results. Perhaps the main problem lies in the barrier that exists between Facebook and real, face-to-face time; no one has quite yet nailed how to merge online slacktivism with offline activism.

A potential place to start could be to exploit what is often seen as a negative aspect of social media – that it’s a popularity contest. Social media appeals to the voyeuristic narcissist in all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. What if this need to see and be seen could be used to get people involved in offline action? Imagine an Instagram or Facebook feed full of images and status updates of friends carrying out environmental good deeds like planting trees, volunteering or marching in a protest. Surely this would motivate others to also take action for an environmental cause? No one wants to be the last to jump on the trending bandwagon.

It’s really just a matter of time until we start seeing more people cross over from slacktivist to activist and take part in resolving environmental issues outside of signing an online petition. Current naysayers of slacktivism and social media campaigns for environmental causes may be valid in saying that online acts don’t translate into solving real-world problems – often they don’t. However, this doesn’t mean that slacktivism should be written off as redundant. Not every online campaign shares the same offline success as Greenpeace did with Nestlé, but they do all raise awareness and spark conversation about environmental issues.

Awareness alone won’t solve the world’s problems, but it’s a good starting point.

Adelle Rodda is a science writer and (excellent) hairstylist. Read more by Adelle.