Debate over the value of online activism has risen again in the wake of the highly visible Human Rights Campaign marriage equality campaign, which urged Facebook users to replace their profile photographs with a red equal sign.
The barrier to engaging with the campaign, then, was very low. Critics claim that this is not activism, but “slacktivism”.
The battle lines over the value of such campaigns are now fairly well drawn. At the core the problem is that activism is scaled from limited to high engagement. Those who believe in the positive value of online activism present arguments about community visibility, solidarity and mobilisation, or that it is better than nothing.
Those who are skeptical about the value of online activism present arguments that attention is not action, that it is thoughtless and too easy, or that the weak ties of social media are not deep enough to generate change.
Scholarly research tends to find tentative evidence for the positive case. Henrik Christensen argues that while:
it is not possible to determine a consistent impact of internet campaigns on real–life decisions, there is no evidence of the substitution thesis. If anything, the internet has a positive impact on offline mobilisation.
Anita Breuer and colleagues found in Brazil that:
the low-effort online activities typically offered by entertainment orientated SNS contribute little to increase political participation.
In turn, targeted campaigning by e-advocacy groups has the potential to increase the political engagement of individuals with low levels of political interest and can help to produce the switch from online to offline participation among individuals with high levels of political interest.
However, this is the internet, where ideals are a resource for ill as much as good. In particular, I believe that we are seeing the rise of resistance to “memetic activism”.
Following Rod Cottingham’s cartoon title, I call this resistance “snarktivism”. The very evolutionary forces that allow memes to propagate in support of a campaign also afford resistance.
Of course there are always dissenting opinions, and this is just a new way of presenting those opinions. The meme forms known as image macros are central to snarktivism as they provide templates for critique.
The first major form of snarktivism is to resist the content of a campaign or currently popular meme using evolutions of the campaign’s memes or alternatives.
Some snarktivism is highly ambiguous. Is the creator of this image equating marriage equality with terrorism, or are they attempting to piggy-back on the HRC campaign to keep attention on 9/11?
Related to this are alternative memes that piggyback on the concept of solidarity but propose a different referent, such as bones or bacon. These are likely not intended as resistance to the marriage equality concept, but they do inject irreverance.
The second major form of snarktivism highlights slacktivism’s facile bandwagon-jumping narcissism.
The now-infamous Kony 2012 campaign was heavily attacked with this form of snarktivism.
The heart of snarktivism is to critique a lack of “real” action. Where this becomes very interesting is for online social movements that have no central organising group but are generated from a mass of meme posts in response to an issue. Frances Shaw refers to this as “discursive activism”.
This kind of snarktivism was evident in response to Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” blunder during the 2012 US presidential election. Veronica De Souza deliberately cultivated the phrase as a meme by starting a Tumblr blog with a few examples and then posting them on Twitter. Crusading internet memetic activists then hove into action.
The snarktivists, in response, claimed that it was not enough to post memes as political disagreement, one must actually vote. This particular example is the third last submission on the now-closed Binders Full of Women Tumblr, occuring very soon before the election itself.
The snarktivists have a point, of course, but there is also little direct evidence of that slacktivists don’t also take other action. Similarly, the snarktivists implicitly deny the ‘any action is better than no action’ argument.
That being said, the irony of snarktivism is that it is at least as lacking in real action as slacktivism. Snarktivism, while often amusing, is a denigration. It might be reasonably true, but persuasion is rarely achieved by denigrating one’s audience.
- Listen to my 2SER Sydney radio interview: Liong, S. (2013, April 25). Internet activism: Does it make a difference? 2SER (Online).
- See my recent television interview: Cargill, M. (2013, January 25). Slacktivism segment. ABC News 24 News Exchange. (Online).
- Hear myself and fellow panel members Associate Professor Axel Bruns and Dr Nic Suzor at the State Library of Queensland event: Protecting an uncensored Internet: the global response to SOPA legislation.
- Rintel, S. (2011, August 15). Obama? Norway killings? London riots? You can has a meme for that… The Conversation (Online).
- Rintel, S. (2013). Crisis Memes: The Importance of Templatability to Internet Culture and Freedom of Expression. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 2(2): 253-271. DOI: 10.1386/ajpc.2.2.253_1
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