Hashtag Activism : Genuine or Counterproductive? - Sazi Bongwe
In all that has transpired over these few turbulent months, we must pause and engage retrospectively. The nature of social movements often makes them seem all-consuming and uncontrollably pervasive, and in turn we often find ourselves completely immersed in them. Rightfully so, causes such as Black Lives Matter, Free Palestine and all other movements aimed at uplifting vulnerable communities and combating injustices deserve to occupy the forefront of our attention. Yet, in and amongst our efforts, there must be time for us to have honest conversations with ourselves about the way in which our social and political discourse unfolds.
As engaged individuals comprising spirited collectives, this time at home has seen us socially mobilise in notably different ways. We’ve taken primarily (while not exclusively) to Instagram and Twitter to express our opinions and stand in solidarity with marginalised groups, in the hopes of inspiring change for them. While this heightened level of engagement is encouraging and affirmative, several drawbacks exist. The issue comes in deciphering how much of what we see is genuine, altruistic and devoted to the cause; and how much of it is ulteriorly motivated, pretentious and ultimately, counterproductive. The distinction made here is central to the conversation around slacktivism; one that we ought to have now more than ever.
Slacktivism (also referred to as Hashtag Activism, armchair activism and popular activism amongst other names) is the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterised as involving very little effort or commitment. In this way, slacktivism is largely viewed as a shallow act, solely concerned with increasing the ‘feel-good’ factor / boosting the egos of the participants in the movement. Conversations around slacktivism focus almost exclusively on either its positives or negatives, and while problems and benefits do exist, our commentary cannot be confined to this. Casting slacktivism under one light often works to remove much of the nuance behind what is an incredibly nuanced subject. Its increasing prevalence within our social discourse necessitates that we engage with all of the different sides to it.
Perhaps the biggest danger of slacktivism is that it creates the facade of social progress. Flurries of Instagram shares and Twitter retweets allow one to acknowledge the problem and engage with the movement, whilst playing a part in little to no structural change whatsoever. Criticizers of slacktivism often emphasise the dichotomy between ‘slacktivist’ actions and actions aimed at genuine change : typing out #thoughtsandprayers instead of actions such as registering to vote-in leaders who will pass the appropriate legislation in the aftermath of a shooting or sending emails to hold the right officials accountable. The effort that one exerts from the comfort of their couch is almost always significantly inferior to the magnitude of the injustice they are aiming to combat, and thus significantly inferior to the effort they ought to be exerting. Yet, the manner in which this effort pervades social media creates the impression that progress is indeed being made. Posting on social media, and seeing the overwhelming majority of people do the same, leads one to believe that what they are doing is enough, when in fact, it is far from enough.
This facade is furthered in that social media activism allows one to be surrounded almost exclusively by like-minded people, again instilling a false sense of progress. While I personally have been encouraged and inspired by the dedication I’ve seen through my peers in the advocacy and awareness they have sought to inspire, I have also remained conscious of the fact that I have been mostly seeing things that I agree with. While this in itself is positive, we cannot allow for it to be the yardstick with which we measure our progress. Seeing Instagram stories flooded with like-minded views can create the illusion that everyone around you shares the same views as you - and continuing on in this illusion (1) allows one to be blinded to the perpetuation of the problem in their own spheres and (2) can have the counterproductive effect of slowing down or even stagnating the movement through complacency. It’s important to recognise that while these echo chambers reverberate, there still exists a wide variety of opinions that are not heard and that are effectively entrenching the issue at hand. Preaching amongst the converted, while encouraging, achieves very little.
Social media echo chambers, especially amongst the youth, manifest into much broader social and political echo chambers, which in turn deepen the facade of progress and fail to garner substantive, legislative change. As a result of the pervasive comfort of these echo chambers, efforts made beyond the borders of them often feel futile and ineffectual - and it is at this point that the issues in need of change persist without an end. Breaking out of these echo chambers and confronting reality is often met with a feeling of being helpless in the face of injustice and as if the world is inherently inequitable - and the momentum of the movement begins to gradually decline. Minorities in each of the biggest issues in our world right now cannot afford for the movement to slow down. The problems facing our society are matters of justice and fairness, matters of life and death. They must be combated in the most efficient ways we know how. There is no time for futility. There is only time for change.
The second key drawback of hashtag activism is the tendency toward virtue signalling that’s almost become characteristic of it. Virtue signalling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas or cultural happenings. As put by Journalist Mark Peters in the Boston Globe, “This newly prominent phrase sums up actions (mostly online) that send the message ‘I’m a good person’- though they might not be accompanied by doing anything good at all.” Slacktivism has become synonymous with virtue signalling - most commonly the sharing of a status or photo on social media in support of an ‘in the news’ cause. A phrase that’s become almost interchangeable with virtue signalling is performative allyship - characterising self-interested, empty gestures in apparent support of a movement . Both of these interpretations of slacktivism are often the most mainstream rebuke of it - the sense of unearned personal gratification that participants elicit. This is problematic on a number of self-evident levels but perhaps the largest danger is that if somebody is participating solely with the intention of expanding their ‘feel-good’ factor, it almost certainly means their effort is divorced from any tangible, concrete action. Performative allyship centres an uninterested individual in a conversation that so desperately needs to be channeled in a more effective direction. If we’re going to get anywhere, virtue signalling and performative allyship cannot define our efforts in this time.
The argument that I make for slacktivism is the same one made by Rekgotsofetse Chikane and it’s the same one that I believe ought to be made by any movement that aims to promote the interests of minority groups. Rekgotsofetse Chikane, author of “Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation,” was at the forefront of one of the past decade’s defining activist movements : #RhodesMustFall. Chikane prefaced the book’s release by saying that “if we weren’t writing our own stories, someone else would be on our behalf.” It would be remiss of us to ignore the vast power and influence social media holds in our 2020 society. If we do not fill that vastness with progressive and meaningful subject matter, as we are currently, then invariably something else will and I fear for what that would look like. The undermining of social movements, bigotry and hate are all present and commonly held beliefs, even if they are concealed within our echo chambers. For these lines of thinking to permeate our social media spaces would be incredibly harmful and detrimental to all of our efforts. While hashtag activism is not the height of our activism, it is an essential part of it. We have, in social media, the capacity to definitively give voice to issues and groups that would not otherwise be afforded platforms - and we must pervasively and intentionally achieve this. The role of the media in activism is highly contested because of how movements come to be censored, misconstrued or even victimised in popular coverage. As members of the youth and engaged individuals, living through these moments and supporting these causes, we have the responsibility to write our own stories. We’ve been afforded the capability to fill the vastness and confront the world with what we value as important in a way no other struggle ever has - and we ought to utilise that to the greatest extent we can.
The way in which slacktivism is cast - through phrases such as ‘donothing-ism’ often detracts from the many ways slacktivism can be beneficial. There are, in fact, ways to engage in slacktivism that matter and yield genuine, positive change. Engagement over social media (1) raises awareness to issues that might not otherwise receive the appropriate time of day - issues such as those in Yemen, Palestine, Turkey, Lebanon; and (2) gets people involved in movements they would otherwise not fight alongside - doubly advancing the causes of the most vulnerable groups across the globe. We can also be conscious of the distinction between constructive internet activism and that which is not so meaningful. Signing online petitions have been proven to lead to substantial change, as in the case of the late Elijah McClain. Sharing Instagram posts that are nuanced, targeted to key issues and that provide practical implementations are incredibly valuable. Our efforts need to be constantly underpinned by a sense of consciousness and understanding - and we can achieve that together, inside and outside of our echo chambers. There are many more ways to strike a balance and meaningfully participate in activism online that I will link below this article - all targeted at keeping Black Lives Matter and other movements going.
In saying all of this, I’m aware of the difficulty and fatigue that comes with participation in a movement - especially as a person of colour. I’ve felt this personally - the feeling that no matter how much I try or how loud I shout; injustice is an inherent and unalterable force. That the issues of the world are far too vast and far too many for any real change to be brought about. In times like these, I find it useful to think about what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote :
“I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to 'succeed'-and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”
It’s a quote that I always seem to come back to in many different contexts, but it couldn’t be more relevant as we consider this current moment in history and the activism that is defining it. We’re learning how to fight and how to ally - and this balance is essential to that. I strongly believe that the necessity to struggle prevails, and I remain hopeful for the high intentions of the future.
I think we’re able to recognise that both of the sides to the slacktivism conversation taken are correct. The question for me is not so much which of these ways of looking at and engaging in slacktivism is right; it’s which of these ways is productive. The absence of slacktivism would almost certainly undermine progressive movements as a whole. On the other hand, limiting our activism to hashtags and story posts would yield almost none of the change that we so desperately need and want to see - and we must not refrain from doing the work that is hard and uncomfortable. We can share in our advocacy for change - not in insulating echo chambers - but in driving forward movements together : consciously and meaningfully. Empathy, understanding and urgency are of the utmost importance as we consider the way forward.