Whatever your politics or leanings on certain issues, there’s no denying that the world seems increasingly turbulent in recent years, as we’re faced with increasingly urgent humanitarian issues. They might be national – like mass shootings in the US – international, like the migrant crisis, or global, like the climate crisis.
These issues are complex, and require dedicated plans of action to deal with them. But those require long-term and sometimes radical changes, and most of us are happy with short term fixes instead – actions that don’t really change much, but make us feel better. There’s even a word for it: slacktivism, which is defined as the desire people have to do good without going to any effort.
Not everything we list below can be defined as slacktivism, but it’s certainly a useful term to describe some of the most unsatisfactory ways we often respond to major issues.
1. Meaningless condolences or praise
We should say right off the bat that meaningless is the operative word here. We’re not saying people should stop giving condolences – it’s a very natural human reaction! However, they’ve got to be sincere in order to be worth saying. “Thoughts and prayers” is one phrase that has come to evoke particular derision. It’s sometimes used in the wake of a natural disaster, but most infamously as a stock response by US politicians in the face of gun violence.
Student gun control activist Emma González has publicly made clear that she sees the phrase as trite and insincere and usually used as a substitute for any meaningful action. There are distinct parallels with climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, who has specifically said she has no interest in being personally praised for her activism by lawmakers or governments if they’re not willing to follow it up with action.
The expanding nature of the digital world means that changing the world from the comfort of your sofa is easier than ever. Or is it? One of the most notorious forms of ‘slacktivism,’ clicktivism is another neologism which refers to actions like signing online petitions, sharing articles on social media, or joining communities without any real intention of actively helping them to achieve their goals. All of it makes us feel a bit better, and some online petitions make it as far as government, but only rarely.
What’s more, not everyone does the research before clicking that button. Kony 2012 is a notable example – one of the world’s most successful viral videos ever, it asked for money to help stop infamous Ugandan criminal Joseph Kony. The money raised did not ultimately go towards that goal, but was instead used to make another film about the same topic. Some critics have noted that since authorities were already pursuing Kony, even raising awareness of him wasn’t helpful in any practical sense.
But most of us rarely see these stories through to their conclusions, as the simple act of clicktivism fills the moral vacuum that allows us to go on being at ease with ourselves. We share the article, awareness safely raised, and get on with our day.
3. Social media challenges
Arguably a form of clicktivism, but one distinct enough that it deserves its own heading. Almost everyone still remembers the Ice Bucket Challenge, a viral sensation which raised millions for the ALS Association and Motor Neurone Disease Association. It involved participants making a video of dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads, encouraging others to donate, before nominating three others to take part. However, lots of participants (including many celebrities) conspicuously forgot to include details on how to donate, and the largely competitive nature of the challenge lead some critics to class the challenge as a form of slacktivism – done more for the sake of attention and social credentials rather than any meaningful contribution.
Now, we have to be fair here – it raised $220 million globally for research to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), so nobody can argue all these videos were empty gestures. However, not all social media challenges enjoy that level of success, or have motives quite so pure, despite what organisers would like you to think. Some are even co-ordinated PR campaigns disguised as grassroots activism. Either way, performing the challenge often stops a long way short of solving the underlying issue.
This is perhaps the most basic and ineffectual response we have, and one of the most ineffectual – we can simply lie our way away from the problem, avoiding difficult conversations and minimising our own responsibilities. For example, research from ethical car recycling Scrap Car Network found that one in three Britons lie about their car usage in response to a growing sense of ‘climate guilt’ about their part in the growing climate crisis. Of these, 63% didn’t tell the truth about their annual mileage, and 45% have lied about the efficiency of their car.
Of course, this can have one of two effects in the long run; either the drivers in question are fine with the occasional fib, or they feel so guilty that they feel compelled to change their ways. The lying is an undeniably poor response to the crisis, but in time, it may eventually give way to people making meaningful change. The question for climate scientists is: will they change in time?