A Defense of Slacktivism

April 16th, 2012

The other day on I came across a CNN.com photo story on slavery in Mauritania. I skimmed through the article and learned that between 10 and 20 percent of the population of the desert nation in West Africa still lives in slavery. Mauritania in 1981 became the last nation on earth to abolish slavery, but the Mauritanian government has done little or nothing to stop the practice.

Appalled that so many Mauritanians are denied freedom, civil rights, and even their humanity, I did what any other well-meaning, middle-class westerner would do: I tweeted.

I felt good about myself. I did something. I told my not-quite 300 followers that I care about the people of Mauritania and they should too. Maybe some of them would skim the article then tell the story of the enslaved Mauritanians to their followers, in 140-or-fewer characters.

As of this writing, I haven’t done anything else in response to the slavery crisis in Mauritania. I haven’t written President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton or any of my congressional representatives urging them to use any diplomatic means necessary to pressure the Mauritanian government to enforce its slavery laws. Nor have I donated any money to organizations that are on the ground in Mauritania dealing with the situation first hand. Maybe I’ll do that later.

Coming Clean: I Am a Slacktivist

I am a slacktivist. Slacktivist, a portmanteau of “slacker” and “activist,” is a pejorative term for a person who responds to crises with gestures that require little effort and have little or no effect but that acknowledge that the person is aware and cares about all the horrible things going on in other parts of the world.

Slacktivism is a product of technology that makes it very simple for a person to share a news story, petition, or video with just about everyone he or she knows (and many whom he or she doesn’t). The aforementioned story on slavery in Mauritania, like most news stories, features Twitter and Facebook buttons above and to the right of the headline. (I wonder if such button placement encourages us to share first and read later.)

So I can tweet about Mauritania, post a story about human rights abuses in Myanmar on Facebook, sign an online petition in support of the indigenous inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, and donate $10 to disaster relief by sending a 5-character text message to the American Red Cross, all during a commercial break from whatever I’m watching on television.

(The Chagossians were deported from their Indian Ocean homeland in the 1960s and 1970s by the British to make room for a military base. They have not been allowed to return.)

Kony 2012 (You May Have Heard of It)

Slacktivists took over the Internet last month to spread the word about Invisible Children, Inc.’s Kony 2012 campaign. Invisible Children (IC) is a not-for-profit organization geared toward ending the abduction and abuse of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa. “Kony” refers to Joseph Kony, an Ugandan warlord and LRA leader guilty of conscripting tens of thousands of children as soldiers and thousands more as sex slaves. Kony rose to prominence as a cult leader in the 1980s. By the end of the decade his Lord’s Resistance Army had become a major military force and had launched an insurgency against the Ugandan government in Kampala. Since then the LRA has moved into South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic.

IC hopes to make Kony one of the world’s most famous (or infamous) people with the ultimate goal of having Kony arrested and tried in an International Criminal Court by the end of the year. The centerpiece of the campaign is a 30-minute video that video currently has more than 87 million views on YouTube and another 17.9 million on Vimeo.

To be clear, Invisible Children’s founders, employees, and network of volunteers are anything but slacktivists. They’ve spent time on the ground in Uganda and the other central African nations they serve. And they’ve devoted their lives to getting their message across, traveling the country and world doing movie screenings, talks, and workshops.

But slacktivists were largely responsible for turning Kony 2012 into a phenomenon. People who couldn’t locate Uganda or South Sudan on a map can watch a 30-minute video, post that video to Facebook, tweet a brief message with the hash tag #Kony2012, and sign the pledge at the Kony 2012 website. (The website asks visitors to “sign the pledge to bring Kony to justice in 2012” by providing an e-mail address and zip code. It isn’t clear exactly what one is pledging to do when one provides this information then hits the “pledge now” button.) 

As soon as the video went viral, criticism of IC and Kony 2012 went viral as well. Critics have accused IC of manipulating facts about the situation in central Africa; failing to articulate a plausible solution to the problems caused by Kony and the LRA; and devoting a larger portion of its budget to awareness activities than to programs on the ground in Central Africa. Some of these charges have merit and deserve to be taken seriously.

Invisible Children has responded to these criticisms leading to what I think is a healthy, important, and fruitful debate about (specifically) how North Americans should address human rights violations and humanitarian crises in other parts of the world. This conversation is happening because enough people—enough slacktivists—have posted, clicked, and tweeted that Joseph Kony’s war crimes can no longer be ignored.

Slackers Can’t Change the World, But We Can Help

A nation or church full of slacktivists will accomplish little more than filling up Facebook walls, compiling large e-mail lists, and exchanging a lot of T-shirts and bumper stickers. Effecting real change requires people who can engage a crisis in more direct and tangible ways. I can tweet a thousand tweets about Mauritania, make a map of Mauritania my Facebook profile picture, slap an “End Slavery in Mauritania” car magnet on my bumper, and sign twenty petitions that may or may not end up in the hands of people who may or may not be able to do anything about slavery in Mauritania; but none of it will make a lick of difference unless there are actual people in Mauritania doing actual work.

The people who are in position to make a difference in Mauritania (or Uganda or South Sudan or anywhere else) need support. They need money and supplies, and they need prayer. And this is where slacktivists can help. Millions of people who weren’t even knowledgeable about the whereabouts of Uganda or South Sudan a few weeks ago, now know a little bit about the LRA and the humanitarian crises in that part of the world. When knowledge and awareness turn into donations to non-governmental organizations that are in a position to help or microloans to people who actually live and work in Mauritania and Uganda then slacktivism is a good thing.

As Christians we affirm the power of prayer. Often praying about a situation on the other side of the world without doing anything else, aside from maybe a small donation to Oxfam or the International Justice Mission, doesn’t feel substantial. But James tells us that “the prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve” (James 5:16) and, “Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick” (5:15). If we truly believe that prayer is effective, then we have a responsibility to be slacktivists. We must share any knowledge of suffering or sorrow in the world with the other praying people we know.

Slacktivism has its place, but we can’t be content with it. We need to remember that posting a video on our Facebook page will not bring an end to the problem that video addresses. Christian slacktivists need to continue following and praying for the stories of tragedy that we discover on the Internet and elsewhere.

Though slacktivism may be our only response to most crises in other parts of the world, it cannot define our entire approach to acts of justice and mercy. Regardless of where we live, there are needs to be met and injustices to be addressed in our own communities. While we are praying and raising awareness about slavery in Mauritania and the atrocities committed by the LRA, we should also be working in our neighborhoods and cities in more tangible ways. And who knows? Maybe our local efforts will be blessed by the prayers and support of slacktivists in other parts of the country or world.

Josh Tinley is a curriculum editor for Abingdon Press and the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.

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