Does clicking a “Like” button on a web site really accomplish anything useful?
“Slacktivism” is a portmanteau of slacker activism. Everyone likes to think they are being an activist. The Internet is bursting at the seams with ways to make this easy: click a Facebook “Like” button; sign an online petition; retweet a shocking photograph. Such forms of armchair activism almost never accomplish anything. At their best, most of them are wastes of your time; a pointless click of the mouse. But at their worst, they can steal millions of dollars from armchair activists who are persuaded to donate actual money to what they’re told is some useful cause.
I remember a day in the 1980s when I was driving through a depressed area of Los Angeles, and there was a billboard advertising “Speak Out Against Racism”, with a 976 phone number. These are premium rate phone numbers where the owner receives a portion of the caller’s bill for the call. Out of curiosity, I noted the number and called it later, and all it was was a solicitation for you to leave your thoughts about racism, and then you could speak for however long you wanted, into the recording. There was no indication that anyone was even listening to the recorded messages; in fact, I doubt anyone did anything but collected their monthly check for the calls and took it to the bank. It was an early version of what we now call slacktivism; a malicious one at that, because someone was making money off people who thought they were doing something useful.
Today, an example of slacktivism is more likely to be benign. The online petition is very common. Online petitions are not generally binding on anyone, so they carry essentially no weight at all. But they’re an easy way to make people think they’re accomplishing something, so companies like Change.org offer them by the hundreds of thousands; Google currently lists about three quarters of a million petitions on that site alone. Perhaps once in a long while, a petition will garner enough signatures to persuade a reporter to write an article that a company may respond to from a public relations perspective; but more often, these are not productive. One such example was a petition demanding that PepsiCo remove brominated vegetable oil from their products. Known as BVO, this oil has many uses including non-food applications, like virtually every compound found in virtually every food. Thus, it’s really easy to scare people with. “This food contains a chemical used in flame retardant!” shouted the petition. Not a problem, but because of the negative publicity, PepsiCo announced they’d remove it.
Slacktivism is also commonly used to promote deliberate hoaxes, in addition to the ignorant paranoia to which PepsiCo responded. Twitter is often used to spread misinformation in a shocking way that prompts many people to respond. In 2014, a photograph was circulated that showed a laboratory with a lot of cats strapped into frightening-looking racks. The caption said “Retweet if you say NO to animal testing.” Over 5,000 people spread the shocking message, with cries of “vivisection” and all sorts of horrors, apparently unaware that it was a photo that had, at some point, been deliberately misattributed by a hoaxer who got it from the Gainseville Sun news website. The cats in the picture had been seized from an abusive hoarder, and were being spayed and neutered by veterinary students at the University of Florida to prepare them for adoption to start new lives.