Debunking Student Slacktivism

Take yourself back to the stress-free oasis of 2012, and you might remember Joseph Kony. An emotive video campaign to find the warlord at the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army went viral: Facebook profile pictures were changed, hashtags were tweeted and retweeted, and celebrities jumped to publicly show their support for the cause. It became the most talked about campaign in the world.

Fast forward to today, and Kony is a distant memory – perhaps a slightly guilt ridden one, as he remains at large, and nothing more has been done to address the atrocities he committed. Those who shared the Find Kony video were dubbed ‘slacktivists’. Critics argued that they did so almost as a rite of online passage, in order to feel positive about having supported a worthy cause.

Since then, slacktivism has been used specifically to label students. With our access to widespread social media, the activism in which we partake begins, and usually ends, online. On one hand, it is phenomenal. An online petition can gather speed and have millions of signatures in a matter of hours – a process that would take weeks without the Internet. The potential for a powerful image to travel from one Facebook account to another means that people are moved, and when they are moved, they are compelled to act.

The problem with this type of activism – as argued by those who coined the term slacktivism – is that the transition from viral concept to old news is very sudden. Like a Mexican wave, it hits one localised part of the Internet and moves on. We like to ensure that our online material is constantly changing; platforms such as Facebook and twitter leave no time for permanence. In the case of activism, once a share or a like has been devoted to a cause, the reader feels as though they’ve done their part. Whereas in IRL activism, participants risk being prosecuted or dinting their reputations, an online display of support is easily forgotten, and arguably ineffective.

Apathy is, of course, a problem in itself – especially when campaigns need the opposite. But online campaign material can provoke dangerous consequences. Often, Facebook posts are short, snappy, and user-submitted. There is no way to verify if the content is accurate, and if the cause is a genuine one. Yet emotive language often means that we’re compelled to share the post anyway. In extreme cases activism can be used as part of a desperate desire to appear superior to everyone else. Extensively, tumblr communities are being held up for their particularly harsh brand of ‘social justice activism’ – those who, out of genuine error, make mistakes when talking about sensitive issues such as race and gender politics, are often subject to anonymous abuse and threats. On one hand, this is distressing for the individuals involved. On the other, it completely detracts from the issue at hand. Rather than a united attempt to overcome an issue, the activism becomes a ‘holier than thou’ campaign, a competition to appear the most dedicated and informed on a particular issue. ‘The relative ease with which one can post speaks to the impulsive side of our nature and inevitably exposes views which, in certain cases, are neither well informed nor very sophisticated’, says Georgia Heapy, Second year SOAS student.

When modern campaigning techniques and activism are considered, it is easy to dismiss students as slacktivists. Having left home and entered an environment, our views and values are being solidified and reshaped – often across the virtual platform of social media. If something pops up online which I agree with, I know that I’m more likely than not to like, share, or retweet it. Of course, it’s problematic if this is the only thing I do. The sad reality is that #FindKony will not find kony, and #BringBackOurGirls did not fulfil this objective. A hashtag will not solve a humanitarian crisis.

A man wears a mask commonly associated with hacker group Anonymous -the activism of which lies exclusively in online activity

Yet to suggest that students only ever employ this cushy brand of activism is unjust. Suggesting activism online will undoubtedly fall on some deaf ears, but for others it acts as a filter – sorting those unwilling to be involved from those desperate to act. In Birmingham, when it emerged that the university did not include rape as an extenuating circumstance for exams, students put together a petition to amend this. If it weren’t for the storm of outrage – expressed across social media – perhaps the petition would have gone unheard. The University of Birmingham responded, and Rape and Sexual Assault is now a clause for extenuating circumstances.

It does not end there. In Durham, the Funeral For Accessible Education, organised by the Trevelyan College Left Society, came about when students realised that the accommodation at Durham was so expensive that those from working class backgrounds could not consider the university as a choice. The President of the society, Richard Lowdon, said; ‘Because we as an organisation are quite young this was a campaign that has helped cement our presence on social media, with our exec posting and reaching out constantly, and a Facebook page for the organisation and event being created. We also utilised an online linked petition, shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.’ He commented on how the social media campaign was a huge positive factor for the Funeral as a whole: ‘I do not think it would have had anywhere near the amount of attention without the use of social media, and I’m certain it wouldn’t have ran with such a large and helpful team otherwise.’ This demonstrates that online and offline methods of campaigning can boost the audience reached by a campaign. 

In a similar campaign – UCL’s rent strikes in 2015 – students were very much active both online and offline. Those involved withheld rent payments until compensation for sub-standard accommodation was granted, after the students were subjected to extensive noise pollution and disruptions over the exam period. The countrywide protests in relation to the junior doctors meant that many current medical students took to the streets in protest. As Emma Chang, a second year medical student at Edinburgh, says, ‘it’s pretty much the biggest thing doctors have to be angry about right now, and medical students are the ones who are going to be most affected in the future’.

In all of these campaigns, student activists are going above and beyond ‘like’ and ‘share’. Many achieved what they set out to do, and thrust campaigns related to their specific universities onto national platforms.

Rather than expressing scorn at student activism, as many have done, we should commend it. Whilst protesting at uni is nothing new, doing so online is. What we’re seeing as students is a new way of campaigning, one that is in its infancy. It means students receiving overwhelming responses to their campaigns, and not knowing how to follow up with organisation. It means scathing online responses from sceptics who scrutinise every move. It means the descent from politics to micropolitics. But often it also leads to genuine change. Isn’t that the point?




Becky Kells is a lost Northerner studying English at UCL. She knows lots about Japanese Literature. If you meet her, there is a high chance she will spill a drink on you.




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