Slacktivism: The Misgiving of Virtual Protests

What’s the significance of a Hashtag?

Freddy Kearney from Unsplash

I am writing this article purposely few months after the one year anniversary of the #ENDSARS protest. And I must state here that I support in entirety the fight against police brutality.

But as I spend some time reading and observing the antecedents surrounding the protest and its aftermath, someone asked a very critical question that has gotten me thinking about our dispensation- Can history be made with a hashtag?

And then I ask further:

Was history or any consequential change made during and post October 2020 #ENDSARS protest for instance? We all agree that social media has changed the trajectory and modules operandi of civil right protest, but have we any significant changes apart from creating awareness?

Is a momentary tweet or retweet or WhatsApp status update enough to change the course of action of a government?

Here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s speech at the recently concluded COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland United Kingdom while trying to explain the inconsequential effect of hashtag protests in forging change about Global Warming:

“We can’t just yell at them or tweet at them. It’s not enough to inconvenience them by blocking traffic through protests”

In communication studies, Slacktivism, a combination of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’. It simply entails people supporting “a cause by performing simple measures but are not necessarily engaged or devoted to making a change”.

Also regarded as social media activism, it is one of the easiest routes to creating awareness about a topic and organizing social movements specifically through shares, likes, retweets, but not the only way to address a social problem.

U.S. surveys conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) and Ogilvy Worldwide discovered that individuals that engage in slacktivism are more likely to contribute to a cause than non-slacktivists such as donating money, attending events, volunteering etc.

We saw that in the #ENDSARS protest in Nigeria in October 2020 that began on the ‘streets of twitter’ with millions of tweets and later attracted virtual solidarity from different parts of the world at the peak of the incident. We saw celebrities donate money and diverse volunteers and activists champion the cause with their various means. These are patriotic moves in my opinion, but there is more!

Alexander Shatov from Unsplash

As I write this, there seems to be no major step taken by the activists or government to address the issue till date neither did other countries take any further step. As a matter of fact, the government claimed that social media was awashed with fake news and conspiracy theories which were detrimental to the nation’s security. For this reason and many others, Twitter has been banned in Nigeria till date.

Further, researchers have also discovered about slacktivism that a significant number of social media accounts are fake because an individual can operate more than an account with numerous personae. Hence, slacktivism is a weakness for campaigns.

Now this is never to underestimate what social media can do to reawaken a country’s consciousness on vital issues. In fact, it was simply the video of George Floyd in 2020 that sparked a national and later global unrest about the lives of the blacks and other minorities in the US. But apart from posting on twitter and ‘blocking the traffic’, there is more!

An author noted that “part of what social media does is allow us to see a reality that has been entirely visible to some people and invisible to others. As those injustices become visible, meaningful change follows”.

But has any meaningful or tangible change occurred since the unfortunate events in the US and Nigeria? It is even depressing to know that there are more and more cases of police harassment within both countries. Not to even mention that justice is yet to be served for #ENDSARS protesters that unfortunately lost their lives.

Also, for momentary recognition, I could share a post that I find fascinating or because a lot of people are sharing it too. So it is not absolutely veritable for influencing opinions as many have posited. It can create awareness about an issue, but not a suitable measure of commitment.

Another downside of social media demonstration is that “there isn’t always a deep well of trust among demonstrators”. This was very glaring with the #ENDSARS protest considering the dissension that occurred. We saw a group of people who are still yet to be verified burning down houses, about 30 government buses at their station, and the popular Television Continental Broadcast house.

Now, here’s what I think we can do differently.

Even though organizing virtual protests are legal and encouraged when we need to express our disapproval over certain issues or actions, but merely retweeting or sharing a page is not and can never be enough!

What about seeking an opportunity to speak with the government or individuals whose policy you are against and FOLLOW-UP? Yes follow up!

To entirely end the cases of police brutality or any other issue of concern, I believe that a round table can be organized between the leaders and the protesters.

No responsible government will ignore such opportunity with the polity on issues that pertain to them. And even after the talks are held, an implementation and follow-up mechanism must be developed to make sure all agreements are met within a stipulated deadline.

As I conclude, virtual protests or reactions to government actions are permissible according to the law, but if we want a lasting solution, we need to get off our phones to take action. It’s really more than a tweet!

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Abigail Oyinkan Olajire

A communication researcher with a keen interest in the media and developmental policies that has the propensity to spur growth.