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Are you a slacktivist? It could be you without even knowing it, says Sarah Hutchison


YOUNG people are often criticized for caring more about their phones than what is going on around them. Last weekend’s climate protests prove, however, that this is not true. With around 100,000 protesters gathering in Glasgow, young people led the way in calling for more climate action from world leaders attending COP26.

But one thing that a lot of older people don’t understand is that younger people protest differently. We grew up online – we are the social media generations.

In 2019, technology writer Evgeny Morozov described online activism (or “slacktivism”) as the ideal activism “for a lazy generation”. It is true that online activism is relatively quick and easy. For example, you can be a slacktivist without even realizing it. If you’ve ever signed an e-petition, retweeted a political post, or shared an infographic on Facebook or Instagram, then you’ve met the criteria for online activism.

Morozov believed that even if online activism could generate a lot of interest, he risked people becoming too comfortable campaigning from home and abandoning tried and tested methods of protest like sit-in strikes and marches.

But after a pandemic year in which staying at home was not voluntary and large gatherings were a serious health risk, we should loosen up the so-called slacktivists.

Greta Thunberg, 18, the renowned climate activist and founder of the Fridays for Future campaign, has embraced the digital protests. Fridays for Future began with Thunberg, then 15, on strike from the school outside the Swedish parliament in order to put in place more robust government climate action. In the meantime, Fridays for Future has become a worldwide phenomenon.

In March 2021, Thunberg asked her seven million followers to postpone their strikes online. Since then, her campaign has garnered a large digital following. On April 24, 2020, the worldwide strike day of Fridays for Future, around 40,000 people are said to have shared a hashtag of the movement. Fridays for Future claimed that this was the “biggest online demonstration” of all time.

While these numbers are impressive, online campaigns lack visual impact. Joel Lev-Tov, a member of the Fridays for Future digital media team, said in an interview: “It’s much more impressive when 500 people march down the street … than 500 people tweet you.”

He also noted that it is more difficult to get media attention when a protest has no visual impact, which is key to how politicians act.

Another problem with online activism is the loss of the camaraderie that marches.

Iona Ramsay, 23, has been a regular participant in protests since her mother took her to her first independence rally when she was five. Ramsay said she missed protesting with other people during the lockdown. She said online protests can feel isolating, especially with so much other content being shared at the same time.

So online activism is not perfect. However, that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as mere slacktivism.

Online activism is essential for knowledge sharing. According to Ramsay, “People are going to be scrolling social media anyway, so [if] more people see your posts … it might motivate them to go out and protest in person. ”

In 2019 Ofcom reported that 12-15 year olds were increasingly using social media to support political causes by sharing or commenting on posts. They called this the “Greta Effect”. Speaking to Ofcom, I learned that similar results were found in 12-15 year olds in 2020.

The audit by the Hansard Society also found that younger generations are more likely to participate in politics online than offline. Only voter turnout ranked higher than any of the online political actions included in the survey.

Researchers are still divided on whether this decline in traditional protest methods jeopardizes political participation. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Kjerstin Thorson are two academics studying the effects of online activism at the University of Southern California. They say that rather than fear this decline, we should accept that activism is changing.

The greatest success of online activism is the creation of global networks of young climate activists. This is especially important when you consider that people from developing countries are most at risk from climate change and many are already living with its grave consequences.

Just this week I saw a video of Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, after it was shared online by numerous climate activists. The video shows Kofe giving his COP26 summit speech in a suit and tie while standing up to his knees in seawater.

In the speech, Kofe explains that Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific island nation, is already seeing the effects of rising sea levels. According to the youth-led Saving Tuvalu movement, it is said to be the first nation to “disappear” underwater, with some estimates suggesting that it could happen in the next 50 years.

Young online activists from around the world have played a vital role in spreading stories like this widely, ensuring that the people hardest hit by climate change do not go unheard.

Speaking to the International Institute for Environment and Development, Vanessa Nakate, 24, a Ugandan climate justice activist, said world leaders from wealthy countries must follow suit and give climate activists from developing countries a seat in climate talks.

At the end of COP26, this young, global generation of demonstrators is at the forefront when it comes to calling for more climate protection. Their work offline and online shows that they are far from a “lazy generation” of Slacktivists.

Sarah Hutchison is a journalist and blogger based in Edinburgh with an interest in the climate crisis and social justice


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