The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does slacktivism work?

An illustration, dated  April 12, 2013, shows the display of a smartphone with the app logos of various social media platforms. (Jens Büttner/Picture-Alliance via DPA and Associated Press)

In our information-rich world, activist and advocacy groups trying to get attention for particular causes increasingly rely on social media as a means of building support for their causes. Users are urged to “like” posts and pages on Facebook, share Twitter and blog posts with everyone they know, and to create videos or take a picture for Instagram relating to their cause. Advocates often ask supporters to wear a particular color of clothing on a certain day or purchase bracelets or show other signs of support for a cause.

Such forms of advocacy, particularly those related to social media, are often derisively referred to as “slacktivism” or “armchair activism.” These activities pose a minimal cost to participants; one click on Facebook or retweet on Twitter and the slacktivist can feel that he or she has helped to support the cause. While a percentage of the purchase price of a T-shirt or piece of jewelry may go to support program activities, for the most part, these activities of support for a cause require minimal cost — and the activist gets something tangible in return rather than donating the full amount to the cause. Slacktivists don’t have to spend a Saturday doing hard labor to build a home or sacrifice a portion of their monthly entertainment budget to a cause. They don’t even have to move from behind the screens of their electronic devices.

Campaigns targeting slacktivists are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them. There is some limited evidence that asking supporters to “Please retweet” a Twitter post increases the number of retweets a post will get, but many large U.S. advocacy organizations are convinced that asking new participants for token forms of support is a strong path to deeper engagement. Their logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be. Campaigns for attention also often implicitly assume that more attention will lead to a greater likelihood of increased participant engagement, including providing forms of financial support.

A new paper (gated) by University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and co-authors Katherine White and John Peloza tests the notion that slacktivist-style “token displays of support” lead participants to engage in more costly and meaningful contributions to the cause. Using a series of field and laboratory experiments, they found that those who engage in slacktivism can and do sometimes engage more deeply. What’s the determining factor? The extent to which a slacktivist’s activism is public or private. Note Kristofferson et al:

Importantly, the socially observable nature (public vs. private) of initial token support is identified as a key moderator that influences when and why token support does or does not lead to meaningful support for the cause. Consumers exhibit greater helping on a subsequent, more meaningful task after providing an initial private (vs. public) display of token support for a cause.

In other words, those whose initial act of support is done more privately (for example, writing to a member of Congress) are more likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on. Those whose initial support is public (i.e. through posting to Facebook or Twitter) are less likely to engage more deeply. Moreover, the researchers find that most appeals for token engagement “promote slacktivism among all but those highly connected to the cause.”

As Kristofferson and his co-authors point out, these findings have several practical applications for advocacy organizations seeking to promote their cause. One of the team’s experiments found that value alignment — the idea that a person’s public actions reflect his or her private beliefs — was more likely to produce deeper engagement as well, and they suggest that charities should promote the values underlying their causes if they want to turn more slacktivists into committed, policy-changing activists.

Thanks to Scott Gilmore for first pointing this out.