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On Slacktivism: Lessons From #Kony2012


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When you don’t know what to do, but know you should do something, what do you do? Rage against the machine! Or… sign an online petition?

In a bid to call attention to the decades old problem of Joseph Kony, a horrible man who steals children and brainwashes them into serving in his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the nonprofit group Invisible Children has created a new campaign to keep political pressure on Congress to maintain a US military presence in Uganda to hunt Kony down and bring him to justice. They are marketing this campaign as Kony 2012 with the intent on “making him famous” so that everyone knows who he is and put pressure on their Congress member to keep US support for the hunt. There is no doubt that in the eye of the international community Kony is a bad man. He is wanted for war crimes and the atrocities are very real and documented.

The campaign has produced a glossy promotional video (below) that will bring tears to your eyes – it did to mine. It stirs up a lot emotions, exhibits the founder’s passion and includes many cues and dog whistles for Generations X, Y and the Millennials. Its intent is to stir up your support. I had only heard of Invisible Children in passing prior to this and was not familiar with their efforts to encourage military intervention by the United States in a sovereign nation.

KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

I won’t go into the details of the justifications and criticisms, that has been done very well elsewhere. Kony 2012 raises numerous red flags for me personally, such as accepting financial support from religious right extremist groups that espouse hate towards homosexuals (including American backers of the “Kill the Gays Law” in Uganda) and support of creationism. Also, nearly one-third of their funds actually makes it to Africa, to which they retort they are an advocacy organization not necessarily an intervention or aid group – even as they advocate for military intervention. By nonprofit standards this is a poor ratio of use of donor funds to expenses.

But what I really want to talk about in this post is related to my interest in communications: “slacktavism”. In the upcoming reference handbook Environmental Leadership, to be published this Summer by SAGE Publications, my colleagues and I cowrote a chapter about “digital environmentalism”. You can download a preprint pdf from my personal site, scroll to the bottom. I’ll share the following excerpt about slacktivism:

“The accessibility of blog and social media platforms makes it easy to become superficially involved in the environmental movement (Shulman 2009). For instance, Facebook allow people to “like” a topic without requiring any additional commitment. While that person may feel they are lending support to the topic, this can artificially increase the number of people who appear to be involved in an issue (Golden 1998; Furlong 2004). This armchair activism, known informally as “slacktivism”, can be defined as “people who support a cause by performing simple measures [and] are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change” (UNAIDS 2010).

Slacktivism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is difficult to assess how important environmental issues really are to individuals who join online communities. On the other hand, ease of integration is important for environmental movements. When entrance into an online community has fewer barriers, individual participation tends to be much stronger (Thackeray & Hunter 2010). This means that the mechanisms that make it easy for individuals to join groups without any additional personal involvement are the same mechanisms that are necessary to recruit the most active members. An environmental movement can utilize metadata from slacktivists to evaluate general interest in their organization or issue, improve their online image, and refine targets for marketing their messages.

[later in the chapter] The speed and flexibility of blogging and social media allows digital environmentalists to draw attention to and discuss a plethora of environmental concerns, drawing from the expertise of scientists, policy makers, and on-the-ground activists within their networks. While the ease of use may lead to what many refer to as slacktivism, the overall increase in network size makes up for a less engaged membership. Even an apathetic nod to an environmental movement lends momentum that resonates throughout one’s personal network, supporting the cause and helping to find additional leaders. These factors make blogging and social media effective tools for any movement.”

Slacktivism has two sides to the coin: it artificially inflates numbers in a movement but makes that initial entry into a movement much easier. “Liking” something on facebook or signing an online petition may lead to more direct involvement in an issue at a later time. With Kony 2012, targeting the college-bound youth is a no-brainer. The great majority will “buy in” to the movement with the $30 action kit and likely won’t do much with it or just share Kony 2012 paraphernalia on all their social networking sites. But the barrier to entry was so low that the numbers seemingly involved could literally explode, which they did. Just viewing and sharing their video above, as I have now, has inflated their perceived importance greatly. They can now boast an impressive 70 million views. This makes it more irresistible to potential members, not wanting to be left behind.

The (multi)million dollar question is what does this mean to achieving the campaign’s stated goals. They raised enough money in a week to cover them for a few years if used wisely. In fact, nearly doubling their previous income of $9 million that was achieved over several years. Normally, without the influx of slacktivists, a group or campaign would have high quality investors (meaning more highly involved or dedicated), that would keep watchful eyes on the actions of the group and utilization of donor funds. But the mentality of slacktivists borders more on association than participation. The role of watchmen has thus far befallen on Kony 2012′s critics, except the information gleaned thus far has been with the view of hindsight. Much more importantly will be to carefully watch the expenditures as they unfold. What is not clear to me is what role slackitivists play post-fundraising.

UPDATE: I was alerted to a very interesting post on Kony 2012 and slacktivism at the Technosociology blog. If you are interested in this topic, her post is well worth the read and gets further into sociology of slacktivism than I can. Here is an excerpt:

So, not only are these people not slacking, they are acting symbolically in spheres that previously had higher barriers to entry. Symbolic action is not a magic wand–and its consequences depend on how it interacts with other kinds of power, including institutional power. Symbolic action and symbolic power, however, are not mere “epiphenomenon” of other kinds of power—as if they were a shadow, or an afterthought.

On the contrary, narrative and symbolic action are central forces in human societies. We are a highly-symbolic, group-oriented species and signaling our preferences –to others– is a key dimension of human action. “Public” is a meta-concept; it’s not just about what you know internally, but what you express and what others know that you believe and that you know that others know… …. Hence, the public sphere is formed not just through people’s silently held beliefs, but through overt signaling of ideology and narratives-and this signalling increasingly takes place online.

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +.

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Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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