Get joining: A critique of activism on social media

Are you actually helping the cause?


Moriah Chiang

Posting a black square is simply not enough.

Emily Washburn, Staff Writer

Alexis de Tocqueville once said that “America is a nation of joiners.” I think he’s right on the mark — Americans do love a good cause. Today, however, activism usually isn’t about joining, it’s about following … and hashtagging, and retweeting and posting. That’s right, folks, activism has gone digital and it’s taking social media by storm. I have often heard this applauded as a great step forward, mainly because social media promises a larger audience than ever before. While this may be true, I contend that, as a whole, social media is far more harmful to social movements than beneficial and should be removed as a primary tool for activists.
Before I begin my argument, I want to clarify that this article assumes the goal of activists is to get people to endorse a cause. I am not speaking to members of a movement advertising a specific event or networking with existing members online. Rather, I am contending that social media does not help activists gain meaningful support.
First, I want to focus on the ways social media simplifies complex issues and truncates important dialogue. Social media is what Marshall McLuhan, renowned communications scholar, would call “hot media.” Hot media is characterized by lots of sensory data, like pictures, sounds, bright colors and visual effects. It’s built to catch the viewer’s eye and keep their attention without forcing them to expend cognitive energy.
Simply put, posts on social media have to be eye-catching and easy to understand, or people will scroll on by. It’s a great platform to share pictures of sunsets and your dog, but it’s simply not equipped to have meaningful, fleshed-out conversations about civil rights, climate change, feminism, gun control or any other contemporary movement. If activists are unable to adequately educate potential recruits, then the likelihood of them procuring long-term, dedicated membership is incredibly low. The likelihood of changing someone’s mind is even lower.
This brings me to my second point, which is that social media polarizes issues and inspires incivility, reducing the likelihood of meaningful recruitment to movements. In a 2017 NYU study, researchers found that tweets containing moral or emotional language increased in virality by 20%. Additionally, a 2017 Pew Research Study found that Facebook posts with “indignant disagreement” got twice as much engagement as other posts. This data shows that there are incentives to post incendiary or extreme rhetoric on social media.
Philosophers Justin Tosi and Brando Wernke call this behavior “moral grandstanding;” said grandstanders use public shaming, hyperbole and blatant emotional appeals to increase their social media exposure. As a result, Tosi and Wernke state, “Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience … Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.” In this tense atmosphere, activists are statistically more likely to get into an argument than to educate. Additionally, the issue is likely to be reduced to its most extreme sides, making it difficult for new recruits to form opinions, let alone commit to meaningful action.
To exemplify my first two points, I want to take a moment to illustrate a scenario I have seen played out on social media time and time again. Let’s imagine a college student named Stacy who recently participated in a climate change march. She’s super fired up and she posts a couple quick blurbs on her social media story about reducing the carbon footprint of corrupt businesses and promoting sustainability.
She expects a flood of support or maybe a couple of people interested in her protesting experience. Instead, she sees a couple of her classmates denying that climate change exists. In response, Stacy’s friend Janice comments that they will realize climate change exists when their houses are destroyed in a flood. Her classmates respond that Janice is ignorant and buys every lie the government sells her. Stacy and her climate crusade are lost in a sea of bickering and angry emojis. Get the picture?
Having discussed the failures of social media as a platform, let’s move on to the ways social media enable slacktivism and band-wagoning. Slacktivism is defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.”
An example of a slacktivist would be someone who posted a trending hashtag … and did nothing else. Researchers have found that slacktivists, though members of a movement in name, usually only commit to low impact solutions, like signing a form, instead of high impact solutions, like donating money. Additionally, a study by the University of British Columbia found that those who professed public support for a movement but did not contribute to it in their private lives were about as likely to provide “meaningful support” to a cause as a random person off the street.
Social media offers slacktivists a variety of choices to “participate” in a movement. The dangerous part is that many people see this action not as a supplement to true activism, but as activism itself. As such, movements can seem large and powerful online, but amount to very little off-screen.

Movements can seem large and powerful online, but amount to very little off-screen. ”

A great example of this is #blackouttuesday, in which millions of people posted a single black square to show their support for Black lives and ending police brutality. Unfortunately, many of the people posting did not understand that, by posting the hashtag, they were burying the posts of members of the Black community trying to meaningfully contribute to change. In that moment, slacktivism held back true activism and left a worthy cause struggling for views under a flood of ultimately meaningless squares.
Before I conclude, I want to acknowledge that slacktivism can help raise awareness for causes; however, researchers also note that social movements amplified by slacktivists tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared. The conversation lasts for about three days, the audience gets bored, and the movement loses a majority of their new “recruits.”
Considering that the benefit of increased awareness is outweighed by the harms of simplification, incivility, polarization and slacktivism, I still contend that social media should not be used by activists to win people to their cause.
Please note that I do not want all activism removed from social media! There are legitimate ways for movements to use social networks to spread the word; however, social media should not be the primary tool of social movements, especially in their efforts to recruit and gain support. Instead, I encourage grassroots activists to consider hosting moderated community discussions, visiting schools, organizing marches, even holding bake sales — anything that promotes one-on-one conversation.
Additionally, I want to encourage increased individual accountability on social media — if you are considering posting a hashtag, or retweeting, or in any way supporting a cause that you have done nothing else to aid, do not do so! Get involved off the screen before you start advocating on it. In this way, we can reverse the slacktivist trend, stop following, and get joining.


Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.

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