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Reading Between the Research Lines: Is Your Social Media Leading to Activism or Slacktivism?

August 1, 2018 Amy Showalter

Bloomberg Government occasionally publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Amy Showalter, a national authority on government relations best practices, grassroots and PAC influence.

It’s an article of faith (faith being the operative word) in the advocacy community that token support on social media platforms leads to more meaningful types of support—-a “like” leads to attendance at an event, a “share” leads to a motivation to conduct lawmaker meetings, etc. You may have stakeholders that engage in both online and offline actions.  However, research that included five experiments published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that clicking “like” can actually impede future meaningful advocacy activities. It can lead to that dreaded malady: slacktivism.

For the record, researchers define slacktivism as “a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change.” (Davis 2011; Morozov 2009) The moniker “slacktivists” refers to those who click “share” or “like” on social media posts without following through to higher levels of involvement.  And for the record, (get your pitchforks and torches ready) as my colleague, Dr. Kelton Rhodes refers to it, “It’s the lowest form of commitment.” Don’t recoil in horror, think about that. . . . .it’s true.  As you create a hierarchy of your grassroots volunteers, you likely would place those who only click “share” or “like” as less impactful than those willing to show up.

If your main advocacy goal is increased “shares” and “likes” with little or no concern for changing minds, read no further.  If, however, you’re charged with obtaining measurable results which manifests in changed minds and behaviors of elected officials, then you probably want to spend your time on what matters most —- on the most meaningful advocacy activities. And you need to spend your time on what motivates, rather than de-motivates, meaningful advocacy activities.  Don’t let your heart be troubled, I’ll share how to frame your messages so that they lead to social action instead of social loafing.

Accumulating Slacktivism   

I remind my audiences that everything we do accumulates . . . . . we are products of incremental, consistent actions that compound. For example, groups who complain that their advocates only send form emails probably recognize and reward groups who generate volume, rather than influence results. That’s their advocacy standard, and you get more of the behavior you reward. Thus, constant encouragement to engage in keyboard advocacy more than other forms of involvement will accumulate. It can create slacktivists.

The researchers conducted a series of five experiments where people were asked to engage in a token action in support of a social cause.  After that action they were given the opportunity to do something more meaningful, such as donate money.  The researchers found that sometimes the token support would encourage more meaningful engagement, but it depended on whether the initial activity was conducted publicly or privately.  Surprisingly, the private actions (sending an email, writing a letter) were more likely to prompt future meaningful efforts more than public actions such as clicking “share” or “like” on a video.  In fact, clicking “like” or “share,” according to the studies, demotivates future meaningful action.

The Values Frame

So, what’s the answer?  As with any influence tactic, the devil is in the details, specifically, the details of your message. Researchers found that token expressions of commitment on social media don’t motivate people to engage at the next level because they satisfy, as the researchers can only say in academic speak, “impression-management motives;”  in other words, their ego.  Everybody wants to look good to others (virtue signaling, anyone?) and clicking “like” is a public action that helps us feel good about ourselves.  Since that’s a motivation for many, there isn’t a need to do anything else.

However, the study’s authors found that when participants are reminded of the organization’s values and the alignment of those values with the individuals’ motivations, their probability of going beyond initial action increased.  Frame your messages so that your stakeholders are reminded of their values and how those values coincide with organization’s goals. Make them feel good about standing for something. (The altercasting technique I have written about is a useful tactic) Readers who are reminded of their values and how they align with the organization tend to engage in higher levels of activism.

Looking Long Term

Anecdotally, I attended a panel discussion that featured two prominent Congressional staffers.  One, a U.S. Senator’s Chief of Staff, and the other, a Chief of Staff to a member of House Leadership.  They agreed that “While we are asked about tweets, social media comments represent extremes.   Those who meet with us in person are more likely to move the dial simply because we know that it takes more effort. It’s weighted more heavily because it’s harder to do.”

The problem isn’t that social media advocacy tools are inherently ineffective, it’s that they are not as effective as other tactics (Rehr, 2017; Congressional Management Foundation, 2011-2016). Social media is great for alerts, bolstering your legislative champions, and educating  (sort of), but it’s not great at changing minds. That’s what all advocacy should ultimately lead to – changed minds and changed behavior.  Our biennial Grassroots Influence Pulse® (GRIP) Grassroots Influence Pulse   (GRIP®) shows that that advocacy professionals are spending more and more time on social media advocacy.  However, our research also shows an association between the time spent mobilizing and communicating with lawmakers on social media and deteriorating relationships with elective officials.

If you want more engaged offline advocates, you need to avoid inadvertently making them feel like they are doing good when they are really just making themselves feel good for clicking “like.”