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The Slacktivism of Generation @: A New Era of Human Rights Activism?

by James Walker

Slacktivism has become a word used to describe the well-meaning, but ultimately pointless efforts of Generation @ to make its presence felt in the world. Campaigns that seek to exploit modern technology are considered a kind of distraction: well intentioned, but ultimately doomed to failure due to the lack of real, tangible commitment or results. The most obvious example of this would be the KONY 2012 campaign, an Internet phenomenon that must have delighted the authors at Invisible Children, but which was instantly castigated as an adolescent fantasy piece by the establishment human rights world. Much as Macbeth would have it, KONY 2012 was seen as “a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Given the fact that the original Kony video came out in March of this year – and that five months is practically an eternity online – it is interesting to look back on this infamous “slacktivist” campaign to see where it went and what, if any, tangible effects it had.

The first thing anyone mentions in regards to KONY 2012 is the fact that the video was watched more than 100 million times in a week. While proponents pointed to this viral success, opponents focused on two main issues: that watching a video was not the same as actually doing something (Slacktivism at its most ignoble) and that the content distorted the situation on the ground and would do more harm than good by focusing attention on American intervention as the only hope for peace. Cries of “Imperialism” resounded quickly due to the film’s projection of Africa as a kind of neo-Hobbesian nightmare. However, as crass as some of the narrative may be, it is astonishing how much critics focused on the idea that the film had a point of view. The fact that the people at Invisible Children have an agenda does not seem all that unusual in the non-profit world. Rather, it would appear to be something of a pre-requisite for getting into the business. Why the particular narrative in KONY 2012 was a point of contention is apparently linked to the fact that, for once, people in the West were actually paying attention. For those with an interest in human rights and IR, nothing in the video was new. The same litany of horrors had been doing the rounds for decades as a result of exhaustive reportage from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or the Ugandan NGO Refugee Law Project. The problem is that the number of people interested in such matters is regrettably quite small. People in the West just didn’t care very much, and for all the complaints about oversimplification, the old school human rights world had not done a very good job of getting the word out.

The real critique here was apparently that the KONY 2012 video was not telling the story in a way they approved of. Of course, disagreements over the appropriate response to humanitarian issues are nothing new in the NGO world. Getting two NGO’s to agree to a common response to anything is a minor miracle. What was new was the fact that a minor player had pushed their own agenda in a successful manner and in a way that connected to their target demographic: young, internet savvy Westerners who could be leveraged as a political voice in their own internet savvy societies. Every disapproving editorial piece in Foreign Affairs just served to re-enforce the notion that the rest of the HR world was busy kicking itself at being behind the curve.

So, do those 100 million views actually translate into anything other than a feeling of self-satisfaction in the college dorm rooms of the global north? The majority of opinion pieces simply branded it “Slacktivism” and associated it with a short attention span and lack of serious intent amongst Generation @. It will come as no surprise, however, that there are other organizations that actively court the same demographic. The most prominent is MoveOn.org, a political powerhouse predicated on the notion that young folk can make their voices heard via the net. Another example would be the One campaign against Aids. But the fact that others work the same beat does not mean it is necessarily successful. Perhaps other metrics such as petitioning could be used to chart the usefulness of Slacktivism? In many ways this is the very basis of traditional grass roots campaigning, and a staple of well established groups like Amnesty. Three weeks ago the KONY 2012 campaign handed a petition signed by 3,729,816 people to the United Nations Security Council. To put that into perspective, when you visit the UN Building in New York City, outside the main chamber is a display from an organization called “Mayors for Peace,” advocating for a nuclear free world. The display holds 1,000,000 signatures, and was described as a landmark achievement, and the “voice of the world’s people” by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. So, Slacktivism apparently works quite well in this sense.

Still, that is just the UN—an institution often regarded as big on talk, but not really effective on the ground. What about the intended effect in the United States? After all, the explicit aim of the KONY 2012 video was to excerpt pressure on the US government. Perhaps in an election years it was optimistic to think that a viral campaign would have much of an effect. On the other hand, the folks at Invisible Children called the concept “KONY 2012” for a reason. While ROMNEY 2012 and OBAMA 2012 duked it out in the media, KONY 2012 would attempt to ride the electoral wave. The results appear to have been pretty good. In June, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously passed H. Res 583/ S. Res 402, calling upon the United States to continue the deployment of military advisors, expand support for regional programs, and ensure that the President keeps Congress fully informed of efforts to track down and capture Joseph Kony. Once again, Slacktivism appears to have done exactly what was asked of it.

Lastly, and with a view to looking at Slacktivism in general, an argument can be made that dismissing 100 million views as mere “sound and fury” misses an important lesson from the “real” world of business. The Direct Marketing Association states that on average you can expect to get a 2.6% response rate to a direct marketing campaign. From 100 million views, that translates into over 2.6 million “customers.” In fact, the DMA suggests that the direct response rate for non-profit campaigns is closer to 5.23%. The idea that people would willingly respond to unsolicited advertising, and yet somehow would NOT respond to a viral campaign appears to be illogical. If you read an advertisement for a new iPad, you are an active consumer… but if you watch KONY 2012 you are a Slacktivist!

Regardless of your personal response to the narrative in KONY 2012, it is disingenuous to suggest that Invisible Children is at fault for the success of their campaign. They have a view, and chose to express it (very successfully) in this manner. More significant to this exploration of Slacktivism is the fact that KONY 2012 is a resounding demonstration of the new age of activism in the Global North. The era of the viral campaign has arrived, and it is important that activists co-opt this new form, or risk being left floating in its wake. One thing is abundantly clear in our brave new world – The Slacktivists of Generation @ are not too concerned with whatever connotations we negatively attach to their name – they already know how effective they can be.

James Walker is a fourth year Global Studies Major at UCLA, and a lifelong social activist. His research interests focus upon international governance and institutional legitimacy, with an emphasis on personal accountability, and the development of the International Criminal Court.

About James Walker

James Walker is a PhD student in Political Geography. James was born in England, but has lived in 7 countries and has visited 36. He worked for 10 years in New York City in the not-for-profit world, dealing with everything from 9/11 pro-bono legal assistance, to working on international productions for Sesame Street. He holds a BA in Global Studies and an MA in Geography from UCLA, and his graduate research revolves around the application of remote sensing imagery for human rights prosecutions.

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