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What Social Media 'Slacktivism' Does — And Doesn't Do — For Advocacy

Image of black squares.
Renee Bright / KUER
Instagram users found their feeds flooded with black squares on Tuesday.

If you’ve been on social media in the past few days, you might have seen a flood of black squares in support of the Black Lives Matter movement ... and then criticism of those black squares that they were misguided or just for show. There’s a term for that: “slacktivism.” 

To discuss its drawbacks and ways it might be useful, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Kilo Zamora, an activist and professor at the University of Utah’s School for Cultural and Social Transformation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Can you define “slacktivism” or “armchair activism?”

Kilo Zamora: It’s really about putting two words together, the idea of being a slacker or someone who doesn’t really contribute much, and the word activism. And when we join those words together it’s about people who maybe participate in social media in a blasé way or a very casual way to say they are activists.

CB: Can you give some examples?

KZ: Certainly. On Tuesday, the black squares went up on Instagram and people joined in on it, and it had a drawback. One of the drawbacks was that people put #BlackLivesMatter, and as protests were happening around the nation on Tuesday, a lot of people need to go to #BlackLivesMatter to get updates about their city and what's going on in the movement. But when everybody posted putting that hashtag up, it was flooded. Those gates and all that information was gone and it just showed the black squares.

CB: What potential harm can this type of social media posting do to a cause?

KZ:I want you to imagine you're out there and you're scrolling through your phone on your favorite social media stream when you see something that you like, and it's like "a moment of silence" or "put up the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter." And you do it, but you don't do it with much thought about what it means. And the rest of the day, you go through your day and feel like you did your role as an activist. 

The real potential harm is you haven't spent the time thinking about what it means when you do that and what might be the consequences. And also really take some responsibility if it actually has negative outputs, like when people can't access the information they need to while they're protesting.

CB: Social media feeds can be an echo chamber. Most people tend to follow and amplify points of views similar to their own. Is there a social cachet to sharing?

KZ:It's really challenging because we need spaces for us to fail and try and experiment. Really, the negative side of all of this is, again, not knowing why you're doing what you're doing and you're not doing it to center the cause. So the biggest issue and fallback from allies is they stop centering the group that's marginalized and at the center of the conversation and they keep centering themselves. When you're doing ally work, your job is to stand next to — sometimes step behind — and support that marginalized community so their voice continues to be the one that we're hearing the most.

CB: What's the potential benefit? Is there a strength in numbers, even just to see a flood of posts supporting a cause from people who might never have been involved in politics or activism? Is that still powerful?

KZ: Yes. A great example of this is Salt Lake City Pride Festival, which would have been this weekend, by the way, originally. The Pride Festival of Salt Lake City is so powerful and beautiful because so many people have come out to be supportive — and sometimes for the first time being an ally to our LGBT Queer community. So there is so much value in the strength of numbers, but that's the very first step. 

I think where the value goes away is if our allies and community members don't take that next step, which is exploring inside of themselves. Why did I do this? What could've I done better? And do I have the humility to look at ways that maybe things I didn't know about and continue my educational path?

CB: When people are called out for slacktivism or told they're contributing in the wrong way, is there the potential for alienating the people who might be the next wave to join up with a cause like Black Lives Matter or Pride or any other civil rights group?

KZ: There absolutely is a way of turning people off and turning them away. And they feel like, “OK, I try, but when I did try, it seems like that group didn't want me there.” However, I would say that a lot of people that have been in the movements for a very long time do a good job honoring the intentions of people but addressing the impact with them. For example, for me as a teacher in gender studies, I try to open up my space for students so that when they're listening to me, if there are things that I'm saying that don't come out right or potentially trigger or alienate the student, I want them to call me out and call me in. 

For people out there who have been discouraged about being in movements or have made their first step by being active in this current moment, we need you not to give up. We need you to rise to the occasion. Keep trying. Keep listening and know that maybe one person closed a door on you, but there's a hundred more of us that want to open up for you.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow them on Twitter @cballardnews

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