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Taking the ‘Slack’ Out of Slacktivism: Political Awareness in a Digital Age

By Dylan Ford

Michelle Obama's Contribution to the #BringBackOurGirls Movement - Via The Guardian

Kidnapped, starved, and beaten. These were the realities of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group, back in 2014. And the world's response? A mere hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls.

Like most internet fads, the hashtag flourished, reaching people in all corners of the world. Some notable names had also gotten involved: Beyoncé, Ellen DeGeneres, and Michelle Obama, along with many others, shared photographs of themselves holding up a sign with the #BringBackOurGirls to show solidarity with the kidnapped girls. During its initial months, the campaign was very successful in raising awareness, but a year later the girls were still missing, and the hashtag had faded out of everyone’s minds. This is a classic example of slacktivism.

As it stands today, the idea of slacktivism is rather ill-defined. The term was first coined prior to the age of social media, and was used to describe those who involved themselves in a cause but on a smaller, more personal scale. The advent of social media then made people overly comfortable with this idea of a smaller-scale involvement, and has furthermore contrived the belief that complex global issues can be fixed with the use of a hashtag.

“When everybody solely dedicates themselves to raising awareness then it becomes a problem,” states Matthew Tussman, a second-semester Social Sciences student at Dawson and member of Model U.N. Social media has the power to do much more than simply spread awareness. It’s been used to educate people, connect with others, and has given people platforms to voice their opinions.

Noah Abecassis, a fourth-semester Social Sciences student at Dawson, and the executive in charge of social media for the Dawson Green Earth club, believes that the first step towards getting involved in a cause is educating yourself. “Read articles,” he says, “even if it’s Wikipedia articles. And definitely both sides,” he adds. “Why are there people for it, and why are there people against it?”

Sharing hashtags or posting on an Instagram story can be counterproductive if one is doing it mindlessly. The internet offers infinite amounts of information that should be harnessed instead of passively “liked”. The same goes for “following” politically active people on social media. “You may have good intentions but in reality, you’re doing less than nothing,” says Tussman. “I don’t think following Greta Thunberg on Instagram is showing your support for climate change,” because it’s easy, and so is forgetting about it moments later. “Listening to some of the ideas that Greta has, and then maybe [implementing some of them into your life], that’s supporting climate change,” he adds.

“You may have good intentions but in reality, you’re doing less than nothing,” says Tussman. “I don’t think following Greta Thunberg on Instagram is showing your support for climate change.”

The more one starts to pay attention to these issues, the more they start to have an impact. “My facebook a couple of months ago was constantly showing me articles of the RCMP surrounding Wet’suwet’en people,” says Abecassis,“and that affects you, even if you’re just scrolling by a picture. One picture may seem like nothing, but a bunch of pictures become really effective.”

Social media is a great tool to learn about various global issues, and can also be used to then see how others are getting involved to support them. “Stopping at a social media post is the worst thing that you can do,” says Tussman, but he agrees that it’s a place to start.

Considering the COVID-19 situation that we’ve been facing as of March of 2020, Abecassis points out that it’ll be a very long time before people go back to physically protesting, This obstacle has forced these groups of people to look for other ways to get involved, and it appears to be more productive. For Earth Day, the Dawson Green Earth Club hosted a Zoom discussion with the topic question “How to work towards a greener world post-COVID-19?” which was open to anyone who wished to join.

As a way of adapting to the crisis, La CEVES (The Coalition Étudiante pour un Virage Environnemental et Social) turned their physical events into digital ones. The popular civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion has also recently turned to an education-based platform, offering Zoom meetings where one can speak with Indigenous and climate change leaders.

Abecassis agrees that the new focus on education will be beneficial for these movements, “because not everyone [who joins a movement] necessarily joins because they believe in [it],” which seems to be the underlying issue which we should aim to change. He leaves on this note: “harnessing that energy and that want to do something, and moving it towards a more productive state will be super useful.” Don’t start with raising awareness, but instead become aware first.


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