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Tanya Sweeney: Slacktivism is catnip for all the empty vessels out there


Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

Want to try something really fun? Go back on your Facebook or Twitter to your oldest posts, and see what you were like when you tentatively dipped your toe into social media.

Eight years ago, I was hesitant and unsure of what to say, a bit like standing in front of a microphone (example posts: 'Indulging in some trashy TV'. Hmm, riveting. 'Got seven hours sleep last night'. # who cares?).

Nowadays, I'm a seasoned pro, with a gripe, quip or sly opinion for every occasion. And you know what? We all do. We've moved from Facebook and Twitter being a harmless piece of fun to the way we disseminate and receive our world views. We've all become confident with the microphone. In some cases, a little too confident.

Chief among the ways that we've changed en masse since the advent of social media is how trigger-happy we've all become. It takes so very little to offend people these days.

Last week, Paddy Power's 'cousin shifting' booth, ostensibly created as a bit of fun, sent some people into near apoplexy.

Elsewhere, TV3's Big Brother ran the following warning "the show contains indiscreet discussions about the royal family which may cause distress." Has it really come to this? Seemingly so.


It takes no effort to air some righteous indignation on social media. What once took writing a letter to a statutory body can now be done in the flick of a wrist.

Have people always had such strong opinions; such sensitivity towards the most benign things in life? Or has social media just made us this way?

Of course, there are things to get legitimately riled up about, and social media proves that when deployed correctly, people power can be a splendid thing.

Last week proved to be a tipping point in a news cycle that has shown us, for many months, the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing their country.

We wrung our hands and tutted as we saw men, women and children cram into lorries, ferries and dinghies.

An appalling sight, certainly… but the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose water-bloated body washed up on a Turkish beach, seemed to spur everyone into action. Or did it?

Plenty of people have put their money (or indeed, their clothing or sleeping bags) where their mouths are.

They donated at designated drop off-points, sold Electric Picnic tickets and gave the proceeds to refugee-based charity, and even started initiatives of their own.

To witness this was truly humbling. How awful that this was the single image that shook people awake to the atrocity.

But did everyone who shared the image on social media, traded think-pieces on the subject and posted illustrations surrounding the tragedy donate time, items or effort?

I doubt it. Surely many of them felt that by highlighting the issue on social media, their bit had been done?

I'm not merely being a cynic, for there is an actual word for this: 'slacktivism'.

Wikipedia defines it thus: 'the act of showing support for a cause but only truly being beneficial to the egos of people participating in this so-called activism'.

If social media is all about curating one's persona, slacktivism offers a double-whammy of effectiveness: it allows friends and followers to believe that you're a good, altruistic and socially aware person, all while salving any guilt about not doing anything practical in the real world that would make a genuine difference.

Slacktivism is rife online, and was even before last week's tipping point. Online petitions, joining a campaign group… folks have been doing it for years.

By last Saturday, 35,000 people signed an online petition concerning Syrian refugees. 1000 appeared at a rally for the same issue in the city centre that same afternoon. You do the math.

While charities have been researching the link between civic engagement and collective action, there's enough data available to suggest that giving one's profile picture a rainbow filter is a step in the right direction, but is barely half the battle won.

I've seen the negative effects of slacktivism first-hand. My brother runs a charity (The SCOOP Foundation), and he has worked tirelessly to raise money to build schools, centres and orphanages in Cambodia and India.

If he puts on an event or launches an initiative, the Facebook likes and Twitter retweets are plentiful. For every 100 'see you there!' comments he sees under his post, 10 people will deign to show up in person.


The excuses start to trickle in: hangovers, haircuts, headaches, you name it.

For someone who spends his entire day immersed in real, directional activity, he finds this not just disheartening, but infuriating.

Slacktivism has its pluses: it raises awareness on a social issue, and also implants the idea in people's heads that helping others is the right thing to do.

Still, critics assert that it lessens political participation in real life, and also suggests that all problems can be seamlessly fixed using the internet.

As long as people continue to craft an online persona with their Facebook pages, it's likely that slacktivism will continue its trendy run.

Meantime, The SCOOP foundation is having a cookbook launch and art auction event - as in, a real-life one - this evening, in Smithfield's Third Space.

Maybe you'll go along and make a real difference and meet those actually working in those third world countries.

Then again, maybe you won't.

'Surely many of them felt that by highlighting the issue on social media, their bit had been done?'