Cooper: Social media slacktivism accomplishes little

Danny Cooper, Assistant Opinion Editor

On Monday after class, I opened up my laptop to see many of my Facebook friends had checked into the page for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the site of a massive protest against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. I was a little confused, wondering how I missed the mass exodus of cars carrying folks out of Evanston. But it soon became clear that the check-ins were meant to show solidarity and confuse the local police.

Though the Sheriff’s Department stated it does not monitor Facebook check-ins for the camps, the wave of support was still appreciated by organizers, who said the check-ins attracted plenty of attention to their cause. However, according to a Facebook post from organizer Morgan Sennhauser, check-ins like these actually make it easier to figure out who is there, as it becomes easier to obtain a subpoena to view Facebook data. Ironically, people who wanted to show their support for the protest now may end up having a role in bringing it down.

These check-ins are the latest example of a trend which has grown alongside social media: slacktivism. People change their profile picture or share a tweet in order to raise awareness about a certain issue, then move on with their lives. And to a certain extent, this accessibility to information about social issues is a good thing, as many people were not aware of these situations before.

Too often, though, it seems as if these are done with the intention of fitting in with trendy social causes rather than out of sincere care. Last year, I remember plenty of people copying and pasting Facebook posts pledging their support for the students at the University of Missouri protesting for racial equality; however, I cannot recall seeing as many at the march for solidarity on Northwestern’s campus. I remember people changing their profile pictures to French flags in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, but their captions revealed clear ignorance about what had actually occurred. Facebook posts might make people feel like they have the moral high ground, but it does not seem as though they accomplish the goal of creating substantive change.

Widespread awareness of social issues also means less of a deep focus on individual causes. Someone may watch a John Oliver clip about school segregation which sparks a sense of anger within them at lunchtime, but by dinner, that rage likely either has dissipated or they have moved onto a new topic. Awareness is a great first step, but it only leads to change when people devote themselves to taking action on behalf of the cause. The rapid shifting from issue to issue in the social justice landscape of social media engenders complacency and makes people less likely to take any direct action for a cause.

This seems reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of “negative peace,” which he wrote about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Showing support for a movement without fully backing it with one’s actions or beliefs is more harmful than striking out against it, Dr. King explains, saying: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” If progress is to be made, drawing from Dr. King’s words, we have to show the willingness and drive to delve deep into social issues, not to merely acknowledge injustices to check them off of a list.

Instead of just sharing one’s location or copying and pasting a status without deep thought, NU students should strive to make a real difference in the cause they are promoting. I encourage the posts I saw publicizing different petitions to sign against the pipeline and links to donate or send the protestors supplies. One of my friends is even driving up with a group to join the protest this weekend. These concrete actions are far more valuable if we want to support a cause on more than a superficial level.

Danny Cooper is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.