There is a classic headline from the spoof newspaper The Onion that sums up the pointless vanity of today’s celebrity-driven activism. It reads “Alec Baldwin Signs Two-Year Deal to Care About Environment” and it was written in 1995. 

Almost a quarter of a century later, we have a name for taking a stand without moving a muscle. It’s called ‘Slacktivism’ and according to your point of view it’s either the death knell of the protest movement, or its future. It replaces the Million Man March with one billion views (for the Ice Bucket Challenge) or six million signatures (for the Second Referendum petition), which are evidence, according to your point of view, of its strength or its weakness.  

Slacktivism Drives Relevance

Slacktivism is inseparable from the era of social media. It makes its presence felt in hashtags, Facebook profile filters, Instagram stories and YouTube challenges. It’s lightning fast and global on one hand, but fleeting and impersonal on the other. For brands, however – particularly Third Sector organisations, it’s impossible to ignore. 

Charities are operating in an increasingly crowded environment, each sector divided into its own niche. That’s a lot of noise for people to process, and it translates into greater cost for new charities trying to cut through and build name recognition. 

But slacktivism offers a cost-effective, viral route into raising initial awareness. By constantly putting your name or issue in front of people where they spend most time, you eventually perforate the sub conscious. The Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, introduced many people to a disease (ALS) they knew nothing about, while the #MeToo campaign made people take another look at an issue that had been right in front of their eyes all along. 

Look at any large public gathering in the last 20 years and you’ll see a scattering of slacktivist symbols that are visual shorthand for a wider issue – from Livestrong bracelets and pink ribbons to poppies and LGBT rainbows. 

It’s social… duh

There may have been a token donation at some point, but the most powerful effect these symbols have is a show of public support and social proof. They pin an issue to a tribe, and invite stakeholders to take a stand. The LGBT rainbow, for example, is as likely today to fly at an anti-war march as a cup final, yet not so long ago it was a flag from the underground. Next up is the current drive to raise awareness of Mental Health, particularly among men, and experience suggests that more people will come out only if they see evidence of their cause in public. 

Any charity today is a cause second and a brand first. It’s not just an objective, but a set of shared values. And any brand needs a tribe. Where do tribes gather? On social media, where they can interact seamlessly, fluidly and relatively anonymously. 

That charities can leverage social media slacktivism to advance their cause is the obvious part. That they can use it to defend it is the interesting part. Let’s be honest, any cause worth fighting for is probably worth fighting against for someone else. OK, no one in their right mind is arguing that the RNLI should be saving fewer lives at sea, that Macmillan should lay off cancer, or that the British Heart Foundation is in the pocket of Big Wellbeing, but many charities do face a constant battle to justify their cause. This isn’t tin foil hat time. Big media outlets have advertisers to keep happy. 

Slacktivism helps to stir up the groundswell, and show that there is broader support for an issue than many media outlets would admit. After all, not everyone approaches an issue with the same agenda, even when it comes to climate change. Extinction Rebellion protestors in London have found them branded as “privileged” by BBC Radio Four and “lefties” by The Sun. Elsewhere, it’s easy for the media to paint Peta as terrorists or the CND as a relic of the “loony left”. Those who take the battle to the barricades will tend to be at the more reactionary end of the spectrum, making the organisation as a whole easy to target with a cheap caricature. Back-end slacktivism provides a counter-balance, showing that these organisations draw support from across the population. 

Knowing the limits of ‘liking’

Critics of slacktivism dismiss it as passive support, as demanding change without making any concession to one’s own lifestyle. Liking a Facebook post is hardly up there with chaining yourself to the railings, throwing yourself under the King’s Horse, or picketing for four years straight outside the South African embassy. But it doesn’t claim to be, and neither do charities expect it to achieve the same effect. 

Slacktivism is strictly “top of funnel” activity. It’s raising a hand and showing an interest, after which charities can target with messages that lead to action or donations. 

At the same time, charities can address the most significant weakness of slacktivism, under which supporters assume that “interest shown = job done”. The person who has shared or liked a post in support of a cause has indicated that they are aware of the issue. It is then up to the charity to educate them on the scale and timeline of resolving that issue. These may be wildly different. The fight against breast cancer or mental illness needs support over a matter of years, from people of all generations. The fight against climate change, on the other hand, needs urgent action, not a hashtag. 

Take away slacktivism, remove millions of ordinary social media users from the conversation, and we are back to the conventional approach to raising awareness that The Onion parodied back in 1995, of celebrities “caring” about causes. It’s worth pointing out that Alec Baldwin supports over 25 causes and donates $4 million+ a year through his foundation. He’s no longer doing it from the mountaintop, however, but down among the hashtags, witty placards and t-shirts where the little people – the slacktivists – live. 

Banner photo courtesy of Vlad Tchompalo/Unsplash