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The Upside of Slacktivism

What they lack in action and commitment, they can make up for in numbers, a new study finds.
(Photo: Oleksandr Lysenko/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Oleksandr Lysenko/Shutterstock)

When you think of meaningful political action, you probably think of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or perhaps ACT-UP's 1990 protests in San Francisco. You probably don't think of clicking "like" or "share" on Facetwitstagram—though a new study suggests that those likes and shares may be just as important as marching in the streets, singing songs, and carrying signs.

"The efficacy of online networks in disseminating timely information has been praised by many commentators; at the same time, users are often derided as 'slacktivists' because of the shallow commitment involved in clicking a forwarding button," writes a team led by Pablo Barberá, a political scientist at New York University, in the journal PLoS One.

"Slacktivists are potentially very important as a collective."

In other words, it's easy to argue that sharing a post about climate change and whatnot has no value, since it involves no sacrifice—no standoffs with angry police, no going to jail over taxes you didn't pay because you opposed the Mexican-American War, not even lost shoes.

On the other hand, maybe sacrifice isn't the point. Maybe it's getting attention, and, Barberá and colleagues suggest, slacktivism is actually pretty good at that part—a consequence of just how easy it is to spread the word with the click of a mouse.

The team reached that conclusion after analyzing tens of millions of tweets sent by nearly three million users during the May 2013 anti-government protests in Gezi Park, Istanbul. Among other things, the team identified which tweets were originals rather than retweets, who retweeted whom, and how many followers each user had. That meant Barberá and his team could identify not only how information flowed within the network of protesters, but also how many people that information reached.

Most original tweets came from a relatively small group of protestors using hashtags such as #gezipark, suggesting that information flowed from a core group of protestors toward a less-active periphery. Geographic data backed that up: Around 18 percent of core tweeters were physically present for the Gezi Park demonstrations, compared to a quarter of a percent of peripheral tweeters.

Yet the periphery was no less important in spreading the word of what was happening in Gezi Park—what they lacked in activity and commitment, the team writes, they made up for in numbers. Though they were responsible for fewer than five tweets each, periphery tweeters had about the same number of followers each as those in the core group, and there were a lot more of them—more than half of those following and commenting on the protests, in fact. Without those periphery participants, "the reach of the active core participants would have been substantially diminished," the team writes.

That's not to suggest that slacktivists are always so successful—indeed, plans for global demonstrations in May 2012 fell flat when a substantial periphery failed to materialize and spread the word. Still, the findings suggest "that relatively low-commitment participants—who are often derided as feel-good activists or 'slacktivists'—are potentially very important as a collective."


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.