The problem with #slacktivism

The latest trend of supporting causes through social media isn’t just useless—it’s making things worse
AFP Photo
AFP Photo

They did not bring back our girls.

When Islamic militants disappeared into the bush with 276 Nigerian schoolgirls, we rose as one in outrage, swore this would not stand and immediately took a million selfies. We raised awareness. We empathized. We trended. We re-tweeted the hell out of that hashtag. Now, six months later, the schoolgirls we improbably expected to rescue through social media are sold into slavery or married off to the men who stole them. And, last week, Boko Haram kidnapped 30 more, some as young as 11.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is the latest disgrace from slacktivists, those who support good causes by doing very little, and achieving even less. A slacktivist is someone who believes it is more important to be seen to help than to actually help. He will wear a T-shirt to raise awareness. She will wear a wristband to demonstrate support, sign a petition to add her voice, share a video to spread the message, even pour a bucket of ice over her head. The one thing slacktivists don’t do is help by, for example, giving money or time to those who are truly making the world a better place: the cancer researcher, the aid worker, the hospice manager.

Twenty years ago, a lazy college student would arrive at campus and happily discover it was “Blue Jean Day” to promote gay rights. Never mind that our noble slacker only ever wore blue jeans; that day, he was magically transformed into someone who gets it, a man who empathizes, a student who cares. It was a heady experience and, a few months later, the budding slacktivist would see a pile of buttons supporting the Dalai Lama; he would remember the warm altruistic glow of Blue Jean Day, and then take two.

Now, the ubiquity of social media has caused slacktivism to metastasize. Even the most indolent can support six causes before getting out of bed, just with the flick of a thumb. Because of Twitter and YouTube, the habit of doing nothing, and doing it often, has become a defining element of our culture.

But social media is merely the enabler. The real root of the slacktivist problem is biological. Our brain has evolved to reward us for perceived altruism. When we think we have helped others, the body releases dopamine and endorphins as a reward to encourage more good behaviour. This chemical motivation pushed us out of the cave to hunt down one more woolly mammoth for our hungry tribe. Unfortunately, modern times confuse the brain and it mistakes actually feeding the starving with re-tweeting #FeedTheStarving.

What is worse, the same biochemistry that rewards us for apparent altruism tricks us into thinking, “We’ve done our bit.” A recent study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that people who “liked” a cause on Facebook were less likely to donate to that cause. Why? Because, in their minds, they’d already contributed. Their brains had already given them a shot of endorphins and it was time to “help” someone else.

#BringBackOurGirls not only didn’t do anything to actually help the hostages; the campaign made it less likely that we would donate to organizations that were doing real work. Slacktivism isn’t just useless; it makes things worse.

Defenders point to “Movember,” when men grow a moustache in support of men’s health, as an example of how slacktivism can successfully raise money. Organizers aren’t even asking for a little effort; they want you to do less and skip your morning shave. Millions are raised. But this is not the slacktivist’s triumph. Rather, it is a signal victory for those who so cleverly manipulate the shabby narcissists, the otherwise uncharitable men who only donate if it provides an excuse to parade a patchy moustache around their unimpressed secretaries.

Instead of being proud of their unshaven faces, their pink ribbons, their yellow wristbands, the hash-hole slacktivists should be ashamed. These things are not the talismans of empathetic supporters. They are proof that you care more about yourself than the cause. If you really wanted to fight cancer, you would not put a pin on your lapel. You would simply make a donation. You would do it now and you would do it without any expectation of recognition.

Don’t embarrass yourself by demonstrating you need a gimmick to give. If you want to help, just give money or time. Anything else is only about you.