Slacktivism or Activism?

Slacktivism blog post

by Derri Smith 

I learned a new word at a recent meeting for an issue that’s troubled me for some time: Slacktivism. Through experience and observation, I find many organizations, faith communities and individuals who earn the label. They love to “like” pages, be a fan, display a badge or widget, sign petitions and attend glitzy shows, usually with big name celebrities and shocking stories and images about human trafficking. Ardent slacktivists announce on social media that they will meet a real need, but privately don’t follow through. 

Slacktivism helps us feel good, look cool and be seen. The nonprofit community provides many prime opportunities for slacktivists. But, in the human trafficking field, the real-life outcome of slacktivism often hurts survivors and impedes the work of those engaged day-to-day and year-to-year in real, tangible efforts. Here is what I’ve seen and grieved over:

  • Slacktivist events and activities are like inoculations, simulating the feeling of really doing something to bring about systemic change or to aid survivors in a positive way. 
  • Slacktivist promotions divert attention and funds—often HUGE amounts of funds—away from actual, ground level, substantive work. Those media grabbing props are expensive! 
  • Slacktivist marketing schemes paint an inaccurate portrait of the issue. Disheveled girls in cages, behind bars and/or in chains do not reflect the reality of most victims. The vast majority are girls whose abuse and trauma prior to trafficking makes them vulnerable to the dream they are then sold by traffickers. They are trapped by psychological bonds stronger than any bars. Traffickers are master manipulators who in perverse ways meet a victim’s physical and emotional needs to keep them enslaved without need of handcuffs. The trafficked girls I’ve seen wear jeans and T-shirts and look like the girl next door. 
  • Slacktivist media disrespects trafficking survivors, prodding them to tell titillating stories. The exercise in voyeurism betrays a lack of real concern and compassion or, at least, understanding. And jarring images can be traumatic to the survivors inundated with them. One survivor, still in school, was deeply wounded hearing classmates gush with misguided passion about the trafficking they learned about at a slacktivist event, making trafficking seem exciting, glamorous and sexy.

Slacktivism requires little of us, whereas substantive ground-level work requires sacrifice of time and resources. Instant feel-good moments are rare for activists; but there is profound satisfaction in small victories, and great value in a staunch determination to stay on course to help survivors over the long haul. The “recovering slacktivist” wrestles with drama and disappointment in pursuit of a survivor’s best good. Activists stay humble, realizing that we are messy people trying to help messy people—not adrenaline charged slacktivists making symbolic statements for the sake of “those slaves.” Really caring means holding back on tweets, Facebook statuses or Instagrams when it might put the survivor’s safety and privacy at risk.

Recovering from slacktivism will likely mean facing unpleasant truths about self and trading the concept of “saving those people” for either walking humbly and wisely beside the survivor or supporting those who do. Slacktivist recovery is a great program for learning from those in the trenches—both survivors and those who daily give them care.

Slacktivists are mostly well-meaning people, and they are numerous, whereas activists are rare. They’re people willing to roll up sleeves and do the hard work of love, support, being there through failures and successes over the long haul and making sacrifices. When a few slacktivists become activists, the dynamics change in favor of survivors. 

Which path will you choose?



P.S.  Don’t get me wrong; sharing , “liking” and widgets certainly have their place. Let’s just not stop there. Ok?