December 25, 2015

There have been many critiques leveled at those who participate in social media during times of crisis, including calling people who change their profile pictures or share viral videos “slacktivists.” However, I would suggest reframing the discussion from “slacktivism,” which I find to be a charged term that implies that no meaningful results will emerge from one’s actions. Instead, I prefer the term “digital activism,” which reframes the discussion as activism that occurs primarily online or initially emerges from online actions. If we reframe the discussion as digital activism, and consider that digital activism online can then lead to meaningful results in the offline world, we can see a great deal of impact.
Bond et al. (2012) in an article in Nature showcased how a single message on Facebook, “I voted,” increased voter turnout directly by an additional 340,000 votes. While that may initially seem like too small of a number of worry about, keep in mind that the United States presidential election in 2000 hung on the balance of only 537 votes in Florida, which gave George W. Bush the win.
Participation in digital activism has also been key in the Occupy Wall Street movement (with hashtags like #OccupyWallStreet and memes reading “We are the 99%”), the support of gay marriage rights by the United States Supreme Court (with the Human Rights Campaign Facebook meme circulating in 2013 and the “Celebrate Pride” Facebook feature offered in 2015), and more recently #Blacklivesmatter to counter racial violence against Blacks in society. In each of these cases, attention has been brought to the cause; people have frequently voted, donated money, talked with friends, and become active online and off.
I think what individuals are actually critiquing here is this: the politics of the technological interfaces that surround us matter. Technologies are created by humans and thus have our moral, legal, and ethical values influencing them. In this case, Facebook is in somewhat of a difficult situation–in deciding to offer a simple button to change one’s profile picture (such as the button to change to a blue-white-and-red profile photo to support Paris), Facebook is making an implicit decision to support some causes and not others. It’s a similar case with Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature, launched in October 2014, which allows one to “connect with friends and loved ones during a disaster.” Which disasters are ones which will make Facebook activate Safety Check, which it says will be turned on in “a major natural disaster”? Facebook simply can’t offer support to every cause. So whose cause matters?
I see digital activism as a key tool to work against racism. Eli Pariser has argued that we often live within “filter bubbles” in social media where we surround ourselves with others who simply think and act the same ways that we do. And the algorithms in a site like Facebook work to support that kind of filter bubble in the News Feed by showing you mainly content that you’ve liked before, people you’re closest to, and so on. However, the power of a trending Internet meme, like the Human Rights Campaign profile pictures and their variants, or a trending hashtag in Twitter or Instagram like #BlackLivesMatter, means that these powerful digital activism moments can break through those filter bubbles, exposing people to causes, movements, and ideologies.
But any technological interface–such as those that we see in Facebook’s tools to change one’s profile picture–will invariably support some causes and movements and leave others out. Race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability and other elements do play a role in what gets promoted and what does not. Why did Facebook offer a profile picture tool for Paris but not Beirut? What we can do in these moments is enter into a reasoned critique about how the technological interfaces that surround us work to support or to break down racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and so on. It’s only through becoming more aware of these elements in our technological tools–which are often invisible to us because they’re so common; we hardly think about who programmed them, how they were coded, why–that we can work to enter into a larger conversation about these issues in our world.