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‘Slacktivism’ not the solution
The controversial Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which keeps same-sex married couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, might be struck down by the Supreme Court after it heard arguments favoring and opposing the law March 27. In response, some Facebook users showed their support for marriage equality by changing their profile picture to a red equal sign.
This isn’t the first awareness campaign to take over Facebook. In late 2010, Facebook users changed their profile pictures to cartoon characters, to supposedly raise awareness of violence against children, and in 2011, women posted status updates with their bra color to raise breast cancer awareness. It’s debatable whether social media awareness campaigns actually have a notable effect, considering the fact that today’s social media user is in a state of hyper-awareness.
The red equal sign campaign, unlike the two previous examples, was organized by one group—the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. Although there is no official count of how many people adopted the red logo as their profile picture, Facebook measured how many users changed their profile picture in general, attributing the rise in changes to the popularity of the campaign. What it found was a rise in profile picture changes starting March 26, when HRC started the campaign. About 2.7 million more users changed their profile pictures on that day than on average, according to the Facebook study. Most users who changed their picture were around 30 years old or younger.
Slacktivism—activism that requires very little work—wouldn’t be such a problem if the young people involved in it were also involved in politics in a more concrete way, but most of them are using social media as a substitute for boots-on-the-ground political participation. Even in voter turnout, the simplest measure of involvement, young people fall short.
Although 60 percent of young people voted in 2012 when the presidency was on the line, only 24 percent of eligible people aged of 18–29 voted in the 2010 midterm elections, according to a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Midterms often have a great deal of influence over the political makeup of Congress and could have had a large impact on bills like DOMA had young people participated in the same way they do online.
Once again, awareness and solidarity aren’t things to be looked down upon, but social media is a very vain form of protest, involving very little work or risk while providing a lot of visibility. It also encourages an implied attitude that people who don’t change their profile pictures somehow don’t care as much, which isn’t always true. Much like the Kony 2012 campaign, a social media attempt to raise awareness of war criminal Joseph Kony, the red bar campaign may have been, to some people, more about sending a token message to their personal friend network than an attempt to create any kind of social change.
Changing a profile picture or signing an online petition is nice but ineffective because, to a certain extent, these acts are meaningless. There are far too many posts on Facebook for any of them to have a significant impact, and though giving everyone a platform to publish has many positive political uses, the ease with which these messages are sent cheapens them.
The Internet can be a legitimate protest platform. On Jan. 18, 2012, numerous websites, including Wikipedia and Reddit, shut down in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. The blackout was meant to show the effect these laws would have and prompted three supporters of the bill in Congress, including co-sponsor Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), to withdraw their support and kill the bill. In this case, websites took a risk by pulling their services, which got the attention of the right people. The online protest of these two bills functioned more like a real world protest by disrupting the status quo in a way that is meaningful to the issue.
Awareness campaigns aren’t as useful in a world where people are constantly bombarded with information. It is great that so many people are getting involved in meaningful issues in social spaces, but they need to understand that such campaigns often have very little impact. In this case, awareness about DOMA is a little too late, for the Supreme Court, which is more beholden to constitutional law than public opinion, is unlikely to take profile pictures into consideration when it is writing its opinion, and regardless, this may be the last episode in the law’s story.
It’s inevitable that in a space where people gather, both online and off, politics will come up. Just know that changing your picture for a cause is a nice gesture and nothing more. Political action requires reaching out to important people, and doing so online is only meaningful when there is effort or risk involved. Supporting a cause only in a social setting, as opposed to making a concrete effort like voting, is a very shallow way to get involved in an issue.