Are Performative Activists and Slacktivists Benefitting Society?

You are scrolling through social media. Appearing between memes and interests every now and then are a few political posts. Some of these are memes, some comprehensive posts, and some even crisp one-liners. Sometimes you read them; other times, you quickly scroll past them.

On another day, a significant incident has taken place. The youth community has taken great interest in the incident. Your social media is now drowning with content about it—in the form of memes, posts, thoughts, opinions, reshares, and sometimes even actions as far as changed profile pictures and blank color uploads. If you have been an avid social media user in the last half-decade, you might think of at least three mass movements at this point—Black Lives Matter (black square), Free Palestine (red square), and Blue for Sudan (blue square).

What impact do these actions have? Are our efforts on social media helpful? We have many questions to raise in favor of and against social media activism. In this post, I explore some, raise some, and try answering some, to an extent.

Part of this discussion first appeared in the Gen-Z led Podcast ‘Tea With Gen Z’s episode on ‘Performative Activism.’ If you prefer listening, check out the episode on Audible, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts. Don’t forget to read the rest of this post as I do touch upon some new ideas!

What is digital activism? 

You probably already know this, especially if you read The Vigilant Mind frequently. However, I will provide a small introduction to create some essential distinctions. In the simplest terms, digital activism is activism in the online sphere. What is activism? Action that seeks to bring social or political change.

Individual activist actions and movements at large can be tested on a spectrum of effectiveness ranging from destructive to very effective, with no-effect being the center point of that spectrum.

Based on where actions or movements fall on that spectrum, they can be labeled in other ways. If an activist action or movement has little to no outcomes, it is labeled as slacktivism. This is also where the concept of performative activism partly comes from.

Sometimes, people associate all online activism as slacktivism. I don’t agree with this equation. The effectiveness of online activism greatly depends on the targets and methods used. In many cases, combining online movements with in-person movements has been essential, and some purely online movements have also yielded successes. However, these were not because someone decided to reshare a post from their couch.

What is performative activism?

In more precise terms, performative activism has more to do with intentions than outcomes. A performative activist is someone whose activist actions sprout because of a need for social points rather than true devotion or care for the causes they appear to be affiliated with.

There is a significant overlap between slacktivism and performative activism because someone who intends to gain social points will not go out of their way to ensure positive and sustaining outcomes of their actions. They are likely to do quick things, effective in getting them liked, not necessarily effective in solving the issue. This is not to say that their actions are useless, but they are still slacktivist actions, nonetheless.

venn diagram on performative activism and slacktivism

It is also worth mentioning that slacktivism is not inherently distasteful. Sure, I have my questions and arguments against it and against performative activism. But I do regard them for some of their good facets and exceptional scenarios as well.

Do performative activists and slacktivists help spread awareness? 

Before acting on an issue, you need to know about the issue. A common argument defending performative and slacking activism is that it creates awareness which is the first step. When actions spread knowledge and stir emotions, others are motivated to act at greater scales. Thus, defenders of these activisms think it is okay if people are just resharing posts and mass forwarding them.

To an extent, I can agree. These activists do a decent job of spreading information. However, the concern here is that they are not involved in creating the information that they spread. That is okay too, but it becomes an issue when they don’t verify the information either. Blind forwarding has its consequences. When a problem freshly arises, we often see that people start mass resharing posts and expressing their crisp thoughts. But shortly after, contradictory information is readily available, and a cycle repeats of content that disproves other content. Unfortunately, a simple activist trend life cycle can predict discourse around social causes that spread like wildfire overnight

social media issue trend life cycle
Simple social media issue “trend” life cycle

Aspects of this cycle dilute the issue. It is okay to not be vocal immediately. In political rivalries, uncertainty, violence, and a pandemic, the faster a news source reports the issue, the lesser value they add to the discussion.

Sometimes, people may be doing this because they care about the issue too much and really want to do whatever they can. Of course, not everything is performative. Performative activism is defined based on intentions, and we can not accurately predict everyone’s intentions. However, we can engage in conversations about people’s effectiveness of actions.

What is the impact of slacktivism and performative activism? 

Little outcomes are better than no outcomes, and no results that have a chance to enable others to create outcomes are better than no outcomes, too. So, should we really raise an eyebrow against slacktivism and performative activism?

Absolutely, for two reasons. Firstly, I disagree that these activists only bring little to no outcome; they often have adverse consequences. Secondly, your time and energy are limited. If you choose to spend that on something that has relatively little impact, it is not the wisest decision.

Slacktivism and performative activism’s negative impact 

Remember, no-effectiveness is only the center of the effectiveness spectrum. These actions may have counteractive results. In many cases, social points are earned by jumping on bandwagons. Often, these bandwagons are destructive trends. Twitter is well known for its fierce and divisive tweets.

These activists often display a sense of superiority by closing doors to communication with those who disagree, calling their position inherently correct. By creating a binary, they increase divides in society and reinforce echo chambers. In reality, the outcomes of their actions mostly taint the image of online activists, grant them stronger bonds with like-minded people, but push away people with differing opinions. You might have seen or heard of people who communicate aggressively and use the block feature too liberally, or may even be open about how they want “anyone who doesn’t think _____ should unfollow me.”

In some cases, it can be that the topic is too sensitive, and the user is emotionally distraught from the issue. It is ultimately their discretion to reflect on whether their discomfort is too great to bear or if they should push through it. Moving through it is the sensible choice in most cases because social change is not a seamless journey. As a Muslim from India, many of the issues I care about are emotionally distressing. Still, it would not be productive if I blocked the opposition entirely because it is not a journey of linear growth for me. Feminists who deal with issues relating to their gender would also resonate.

Some people spend several hours on social media just resharing content and engaging in almost meaningless aggressive comment wars (especially on Twitter) or sharing witty screenshots of chats taking a jab at the other side. Satire is not always a poor choice, but in conversations where the target audience is also the common public, it may not be the best idea, i.e., it is likely to work when it’s the ordinary people united trying to urge larger institutions to bring change rather than when they use satire against other ordinary individuals.

Let’s take the example of feminism to understand that point further. When a group in society is upset by the state’s failure to bring justice or passes a law that the people do not like, they can start a movement that uses several tools, including satire, to urge the government to take different actions. Many studies have shown that this is likely to be successful. However, if the same group of feminists was concerned about how other households deal with domestic violence. Do you really expect one-liner tweets and satirical content to make them reconsider their ways of life instead of shutting you out? You can argue that people would reflect and change in some cases, but the larger picture has adverse results.  

Even seemingly harmless measures such as uploading a black, red, or blue square can be counterproductive. During the BLM, PLM, and Sudan issue, many activists opposed the uploading of squares with hashtags because it diluted actual content and news in the hashtag threads.

The opportunity cost of slacktivism and performative activism 

Some actions may not have unfavorable outcomes. For example, people who police the use of specific terms relating to differently-abled people. One argument can be that depending on the approach taken, they also increase divides within the society. But analyzing their rhetorical strategies is another topic that I won’t be covering in this post.

The other and more relevant argument is raised when individuals only police terms online. Isn’t it reasonable to question someone’s outcomes or intentions if all they ever do is police the use of terms online and talk about inclusion but have never looked for a volunteering opportunity in their life?

Suppose someone has spent several hours on Twitter only aggressively tweeting with little to no thought. Isn’t it reasonable to expect them to diversify, including more productive means, and proactively develop their activism

What should we do? 

Communicate. Performative activism is identified through intentions, and we can’t always assume someone’s preferences. It may not be wise to shift communication to attack people over their intentions amidst a social movement. Still, it is essential to ensure that actions are productive. So when you come across such people, ask questions, brainstorm strategies, raise your objections (frame it appropriately), and look for opportunities to continually enhance activist outcomes proactively. 

Online activism and slacktivism is not inherently bad, as I mentioned before. Many strategies can have low outcomes but it is still better than no outcome. Often, an amalgamation of little voices creates a large and impactful voice. Yet, it is beneficial to engage in continuous conversation, reflection, and analysis of these strategies to refine the consequences for good.

It’s a long-term journey and is subjective on a case-by-case basis. Don’t take my thoughts or framework as rigid or binary, but as food for thought and make your own decisions and continue to engage in discussions that can enhance others and your activist strategies. Even if you’re just a content consumer rather than a creator, I hope my work allows you to navigate the internet, think, and engage others better.

Don’t forget to listen to this podcast episode on Performative Activism on the Tea With Gen Z podcast. You can listen to the episode on Audible, Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

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