The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In praise of slacktivism: Your cliche Facebook post can still make a difference

Don't be shy with your opinion.

(Courtesy of R.V. Subramanian)

This week, a friend mentioned to me that she wanted to post a photo of her parents depicting them shortly after they arrived in America. They look terrified and in love and very, very hopeful. She wanted to post it on Facebook with a message about how hard they worked from the very day they arrived. And how the America she knows has always looked like them. It was a beautiful message, but she was afraid to post it. She feared it might seem trite or too earnest

She’s not alone. Some of us have feeds full of political posts, but many friends remain silent, including ones who are politically engaged. Talking to them offline, they tell me their concerns: It’s untoward; it’s unoriginal; it’s self-aggrandizing; they don’t want to launch pointless online battles in which nobody will be persuaded; they think posting about politics on social media is the province of aunts and uncles and high school classmates you barely remember. And maybe it’s pointless: As Malcolm Gladwell put it in 2010, perhaps “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

That’s all wrong. Even if a post looks narcissistic or inelegantly crafted, everyone who cares about politics should engage in political speech on social media, for one surpassing reason: It works.

One of the great underreported stories of the 2016 election was how thoroughly Donald Trump cleaned Hillary Clinton’s clock online. We’ve been told for years that voicing our opinion over social media is meaningless “slacktivism.” So it’s understandable that people might think their voices were irrelevant. But they’re not: On election night, former Gawker executive Erin Pettigrew found that Trump beat Clinton in Facebook engagement in every single state. Her analysis, “How Facebook Saw Trump Coming When No One Else Did,” shows that in liberal states such as New York, three times as many people engaged with Trump content as Clinton content. In conservative states such as Mississippi, the difference was a factor of 12.

Because every Donald Trump post was shared more often, his message was amplified over and over again. Polarization online is real, and it’s difficult to change anyone’s mind; but voter intensity still matters. Enthusiasm drove online engagement, which in turn drove offline enthusiasm — for 18 straight months. Trump bolstered this with targeted Facebook ads that many think were devastatingly effective. In the end, Facebook engagement was about as good a predictor as any of where states would break from poll numbers.

Online activism wasn’t just closely related to voting this November. It has also been an engine of participation in the massive protests that have erupted since Trump’s inauguration. As Farhad Manjoo pointed out in the New York Times this week, social media drove turnout for the protests and amplified their effect — think of the myriad pictures people shared of the events. Like it or not, this is how communities function in the 21st century: partially online and partially offline. I run a company focused on building real-world communities, and I’m acutely aware that those communities work best when they are fused with the digital world. If both realms matter, why abdicate your voice in either one?

It’s true that it’s tough to have an original thought online. (Do you think you’re the first person to photograph a latte?) Someone has surely said what you’d like to say more eloquently and more thoughtfully. But engagement is driven by a sense of connection, not a sense of novelty. My mom posts incessantly on Facebook, and her pain about the election is searing. Perhaps columnists have made her points with a less enthusiastic commitment to caps lock. But when it comes time to decide how to devote my time, how heavily to lean into opposing the current administration, it won’t be the duty I owe to Maureen Dowd that I’ll be thinking of.

It’s also true that the world is full of qualified commentators (and many unqualified ones). We’ve all rolled our eyes at a Nate Silver-wannabe opining about sample sizes when it’s clear they’ve never taken a statistics class. Nobody wants to look like an amateur or to make easily rebutted arguments. But the great issues of this political period — race, xenophobia, the size of government, the rule of law — don’t require years in the Beltway to grasp. These are primarily moral issues. We were all qualified to oppose the unfair treatment of others the day we took our first breath.

“Slacktivism” has been cast as a threat to more traditional forms of activism. But it’s not. It’s a spur, a reminder of how those around you are feeling, and a kick in the pants to get involved in other ways. For Trump opponents, the coming years are not going to be easy. As Van Jones warned, “We are going to lose much more than we win.” But our allies around the world are looking to see whether we can sustain the fight, for some signal that Americans think that what’s happening in their country doesn’t represent what it means to be American. And Donald Trump is waiting for protests to peter out and resistance to slacken, so he can tweet about them as signs that the opposition has given up.

The opposition will be a long, drawn-out, multifaceted affair. A significant portion of it will exist online, or will be propelled and amplified by social media. If a little bit of slacktivism means closing the enthusiasm and engagement gap, motivating others to action and expressing your right to political speech, that sounds like something you can feel proud of.