“Performative slacktivism: ‘Saving’ the world with Facebook likes”

 

“Mother of Sick Child Finally Receives Vital Facebook Likes Needed for Operation.” [1] A photograph of a young woman receiving a box of the famous social network “thumbs up” signs accompanied this fictitious headline in an online satirical publication. I hope and trust as I write that no one actually believes such Internet clicks to be currency. Indeed, should the article be widely believed, that fact would suggest that Lord Byron was right about truth often proving stranger than fiction. [2],

Yet “slacktivism” and “awareness-raising” campaigns are massive phenomena. Both terms describe the popular habit of endorsing political causes on social media—such as by “sharing” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter—while doing nothing else about them outside of these Internet forums. This practice is often criticized for being causally ineffective, [3] translating into less actual public support than otherwise might obtain, [4] or even reinforcing privilege and oppression. [5] I do not disagree; such objections are sensible and too often silenced. But it is not only slacktivists who deserve criticism, but also those media outlets that validate and encourage such behavior by blurring the lines of fact and fiction and distorting public knowledge of causal relationships.

Performative contexts
My analysis of these issues rests on a discussion of performativity. Performativity is too vast and controversial a topic to address in any detail in this space, but I want here to highlight three key elements of the construct. First is the idea—as argued by philosopher J.L. Austin [6]—that speech acts are not true or false claims that represent inner mental states. Instead, these must be assessed according to whether they fulfilled the goals of the speakers who voiced them. Second is the related contention that the ascription of traits to persons has more to do with their performance of acts than with their psychological characteristics. For example, Judith Butler [7] has claimed that gender is not something that one essentially is and that determines one’s behaviors. Instead, she has suggested that gender is something that one does, a series of repeated gender-doings and how they are evaluated in the discourses of one’s community. Third, and similarly, we often choose our actions based on the social currency they earn us, what pragmatist philosophers such as William James have called “the cash-value of truth.” [8] While our moral and metaphysical commitments matter, they alone do not determine actions or the conditions for truth.

Slacktivists, voters, nonviolent protesters, and Molotov Cocktail throwers may believe similarly, but behave differently because of situation, opportunity, worth and availability of social currency, and different assessments of success conditions and causal relations—that is, because of the performative contexts in which they operate. Our judgments of slacktivism must therefore include evaluations of the circumstances in which the behavior occurs.

In the first analysis, we can assess actions and actors based on performative contexts. Consider a simple speech act to express approval: “I guess I would not oppose marriage equality.” In liberal circles this is at best an indifferent endorsement, often too tepid, but it indicates courage or firm moral commitment if performed when one stands to lose social currency, such as when spoken among bigots. All kinds of statements can be assessed similarly, even the more moral or metaphysical, such as “I am a person” or “I have a right to be educated”—just ask Malala Yousafzai. [9]

But we may also reverse the direction of analysis and explain actions through contexts. As the son of a former union leader, I know well which protest acts are efficacious. I may rationalize that knowledge through Marxist rhetoric, but that is not how I learned that those acts are effective. I learned of their efficacy because I lived in a performative circumstance that validated and encouraged those steps and in which people were more likely to perform them and praise those who did, and where their effectiveness was clear to me. The question, then, can be framed in this way: How do the performative contexts of social media promote and validate slacktivism? 

Epistemic obscurantism
One feature is immediately evident: Social media distort perceptions of causal relations by displacing real-world consequences in a manner similar to the online disinhibiting effect on behavior and moral perception when Internet anonymity is guaranteed. [10] When we endorse a concern on social media, we simultaneously also assume the risk of caring less about the issue than about the currency that we have gained from endorsing it. Our standards are lowered and we more easily rest content that we have made a difference, not to mention that we have ready and abundant exit routes. If something goes wrong, we just need to turn off the screen, “unfriend” someone, or stop caring about the issue, and it goes away.

Those who behave like this are partly to blame, but they are also victims of an obscurantist context that discourages transition to more causally efficacious ones. It should come as no surprise that those unacquainted with a certain context, the Internet or another forum, are also less aware of the causative efficacy of the acts performed within it. Those who are not oppressed, or who do not live in poverty, or who did not suffer grave illness, or who do not unionize, or who do not daily experience a range of additional conditions that might be named, are less aware of the differences between those contexts and those where one can afford to believe “I have made a difference; this will be enough” simply by clicking a link.

These comments must not be taken as leave to stereotype individuals: The Social Media Sharer, The Union Leader, The Oppressed Person, etc. Acknowledging that acts ought to be assessed in their contexts does not warrant the reification and warrantless pigeonholing of performers any more than asking five students what they like to eat permits conclusions concerning “student” eating habits. On the contrary: honing one’s sensitivity to performative contexts encourages careful particularism in lieu of hasty generalizations.

“Have you heard this?!”
Despite all this, slacktivism can be useful. It informs or reminds individuals of a problem, and that is significant. When my students ask what they can do to address injustice and “fix things,” the first of my many suggestions is always the same: Tell as many people as you can, as often as you can. Some say that they are afraid of losing friends by talking too much, or of finding in so doing that they no longer enjoy the same things. Unless one is a thoroughly committed idealist, these are valid concerns. I reply that part of becoming a better thinker (and citizen) is learning to balance social expression with its consequences and to become more sensitive to the performative contexts of our social lives. It is a game of practical balance, assisted by that nagging thing called morality.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has remarked that some scientific discoveries make him want to grab people on the street and shout, “Have you heard this?!”[11] Surely the same applies to injustice, oppression, suffering, and many other public maladies, replacing wonder for indignation, anger, love, or solidarity. In this sense, social media sharing can serve as a weapon against the very obscurantism that validates it, but only if it is the first step of many. Just as wonder alone does not result in scientific progress, so social media cannot by itself guarantee social change. When it is perceived as an end, as effective beyond its merits, or as a mechanism of validating self-importance—that is, when it puts the “slack” in slacktivism—we must not only hold its users accountable, but also demand accountability of the medium that makes such perceptions possible and desirable.

References

[1]  Waterford Whispers News. 2013. “Mother Of Sick Child Finally Receives Vital Facebook Likes Needed For Operation.” Accessed April 15, 2014. http://waterfordwhispersnews.com/2013/08/26/mother-of-sick-child-finally-receives-vital-facebook-likes-needed-for-operation/

[2]  Lord Byron. 1824. Don Juan. Canto the Fourteenth.

[3]  Seay, Laura. 2014. “Does slacktivism work?” The Washington Post, March 12. Accessed April 15, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/12/does-slacktivism-work/

[4]  University of British Columbia. 2013. “Slacktivism: ‘Liking’ on Facebook may mean less giving.” ScienceDaily. Accessed April 17, 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131108091320.htm

[5]  Cole, Teju (2012). “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic Online. Accessed April 15 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

[6]  Austin, J.L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Harvard University Press.

[7]  Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble. Routledge.

[8]  James, William. 1909. Pragmatism. Hackett Publishing Company (1990).

[9]  Yousafzai, Malala. 2013. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Little, Brown and Company.

[10]   Suler, John. 2004. “The online dishibition effect.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321-326.

[11]   deGrasse Tyson, Neil. 2006. “The Universe is in Us.” YouTube video, 1:16, from a lecture recorded at Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival on November 5-7, 2006, posted by “WorldPantheism” on May 19, 2010.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rr-jyg0MyI

ClaudioDAmato1-photo (2)Claudio D’Amato is a first-year Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program, studying ethics and politics and teaching courses in philosophy and political science. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech. Currently he is in the very early stages of a dissertation on agency, communal self-determination, and postcolonial critiques of neoliberal development programs. Other research interests center on social epistemology and span many loosely related fields, including media ethics, sports ethics and history, and cultural criticism.

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