Generation Y

Slack: Social media campaign for equality exemplifies wrongful replacement of true activism

Last week, the eyes of every news-literate American were fixed on the proceedings in the U.S. Supreme Court as two landmark cases regarding gay marriage were argued before the nine justices.

Protesters from both sides surrounded the building, chanting slogans, waving signs and making media statements. Some waited in line outside for days in order to view the hearing.

The two cases may end up becoming significant steps in a civil rights movement that saw the strife and turmoil of the Stonewall riots and the assassination of Harvey Milk. In the past several decades, we have seen countless instances of civil disobedience, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and the resilience of the human spirit.

It’s a crucial moment in the history of gay rights, a moment that is built upon a foundation of sacrifice by thousands.

And on Facebook, a whole bunch of people changed their profile pictures to a white equal sign on a red background — ostensibly showing support for equality for gay couples.

These Supreme Court cases will, in all likelihood, end up being decided more on the basis of states versus federal rights, and unfortunately not on the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Which means, in this circumstance, protesting the Supreme Court via social media in the name of equality is sort of irrelevant. Especially because I really doubt Antonin Scalia has a Facebook. But that would be funny if he did.

Regardless of whether Justice Scalia is surfing the web for symbolic protests, all of this has made me realize that the nature of discourse in our society is changing rapidly, and not in a good way.

It seems that more and more vacuous social media campaigns are replacing actual activism. The five-second effort of posting a picture with a clever little syllogism on it, or simply clicking “retweet” are seen as adequate substitutes for civic engagement, or making a real contribution to an altruistic cause. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that it has even acquired its own moniker: “slacktivism.”

No, I didn’t coin it.

Remember “Kony 2012”? When an African warlord nobody had ever heard of —and as it turned out, was living in exile — became infamous overnight? A billion well-meaning Facebook users shared a video about Joseph Kony, but it was discovered the charity behind the film was poorly run and had somewhat shady finances. You can only vaguely recall it, right? That’s because we all moved on to the next cause du jour 15 seconds later.

How about that bizarre campaign to make your profile picture a cartoon character in support of child abuse victims? Remember how it may or may not have been some kind of pedophile scam? That wasn’t the finest hour for the cyber-Gandhis.

Why has protesting become such a major component of social media? In an October 2010 article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating to do the thing that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” He cites the “Save Darfur Coalition” Facebook page as evidence, which has more than 1.2 million “likes.” On average, these supporters have donated only 9 cents apiece to the cause.

Now of course changing your profile picture for gay rights is not as egregious as some of the examples I’ve mentioned. A friend of mine made a good point: If it makes just one person struggling with his or her sexuality feel comfortable, it was a worthwhile effort.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel we’re on a slippery slope. Complaining about the lack of gun control legislation online is a nice exercise of your right to free speech, but in the end, a “like” or a “share” is not going to make a significant, real-world difference.

We’re becoming less informed, more reactionary, less active, more self-congratulatory. It seems like a dangerous trend. If you really care, a click doesn’t change much. Deep down, you know it’s true.

Go out and do something. Quit being slacktivists.

Kevin Slack is a senior television, radio and film major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at khslack@syr.edu and followed on Twitter at @kevinhslack.

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