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Why slacktivism ruined Brexit activism

6 minutes to read
Isabell Wutz


39,087 signatures obtained the online petition “Give EU citizens living & working in the UK the right to vote in EU Referendum”. It ran for six months and eventually got a response from the government saying that the “franchise for the EU referendum is based on the franchise for Parliamentary elections” and that this has been the approach for other referendums in the past as well. The explanation has been given, Media has remained indifferent and the petition has been closed – over and out. Meanwhile in Germany and other European countries far smaller groups of hundreds or thousands took to the streets to protest against the alleged Islamisation of the Occident and cause a stir in Media and public alike. The difference is summarized by Malcolm Gladwell`s divisive words: “the revolution will not be tweeted”.

These days online social networks such as Facebook or Twitter became a political and expressive battleground. Instead of gathering in squares on a rainy day the Internet has the benefit to be faster, multimedial, more impulsive and creative – and all in all dryer and more comfortable. The Internet with its new tools of social media has enabled and reinvented social and political activism. However, the question arises: to the better? Do these means enhance or deteriorate political activism? Do Facebook and Co give way to a better, more direct democracy or is it solely Slacktivism?

“Digital voices are silent.”

Since Britain’s prime minister David Cameron announced the implementation of a referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom stays in the European Union, a daily share of virtual expression circle on Social Media platforms. Both sides, “Brexit” and “Bremain”, use these networks to connect, persuade and activate supporters. “”´s Facebook group has almost 650.000 members, it´s Twitter profile counts approximately 85.000 followers. On the other side the “Stronger In” campaign has collected 25.000 Twitter Followers and 370.000 Facebook members. All of them seem to be on a hunt for the most clicks, the most likes, the most followers, retweets, reposts and so on. 

However, having the most subscribers is no indicator for the actual political commitment or the political outcome of the EU referendum. As seen in the Scottish referendum in 2014 where the Yes side was ahead in the Social Media numbers but still went on to lose showing that Facebook or Twitter should not be attached to much importance. These numbers and other Social Media activities can be misleading as they do not show a real commitment to the cause but are implications of mostly so-called slackers.

Sitting on our butts with screens on our laps and one mouse-click away from changing our profile picture or joining a Facebook group seems shameful towards our parents and grandparents who took to the streets no matter what time or weather to protest for their believes and values. And who has ever seen a headline depicting the powerful “likes” of thousands of Facebook users who challenge or changed politics? No matter how easily accessible, busy or interactive the Internet and Social Media is, it is still silent. Digital voices are silent and don´t come shouting paroles under your kitchen window.

“It is easy to mistake quantity for quality.”

Proponents of an efficient online activism argue that the participation is higher online then offline. The threshold for political engagement has indeed been lowered and is therefore more attractive to a diversity of people. However, the intention behind such online active behaviour should not be omitted. Someone’s like, tweet, signature or profile picture´s change is not always the outcome of one´s selflessness or commitment. To the contrary, it might as well be the consequence of a mimicry or desire to impress one’s friends, family or crush or simply to obtain a good feeling about oneself. 

As an example serves the #hugabrit campaign by Twitterer PleaseDontGoUK. In an attempt to persuade Britons to stay in the EU and to spread love and solidarity the campaign encourages people to share a photo hugging a Brit. The hashtag is neutral which could lead to a potential misuse. The catchy and emotional aspect of this campaign attracts people easily online, however, a level of political engagement is hardly recognizable. Instead, it might even attract people who see it as another opportunity to share their own photos with friends and family and disregard the actual purpose.

At the same time the Internet is anonymous which increases a risky behaviour among users. By hiding behind the screen one feels protected and starts behaving thoughtless and reckless. On one day David Cameron´s statement about the potential loss of economic security looks agreeable and as a result a petition has been sign, a video shared and a group joined. The next day comes and the newspapers is full of allegation towards Cameron in the context of the so-called panama Papers. Quickly one can reverse all Social Media activities from yesterday and change sides without being seen or heard. 

The lack of real commitment is a crucial and worrying factor in social activism. “In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.” The threshold is already too low. How many people would actually participate in an online petition or engage in a group when they were asked to give more than just the second of pressing their mouse? “It is easy to mistake quantity for quality” wrote Evgeny Morozov and sums up the risk.

 “Authenticity and trust have been shattered.”

A petition signed by over ten thousand people seems attractive and circulates more often in the digital sphere then others, giving more people the opportunity to engage with it. However, in busy world people stop reading and instead started scanning their Social Media chronicles of particular words, phrases or picture which seem attractive and once something looks agreeable we are already provided with the necessary buttons to share, comment or join our agreements. This precast system robs us of our emotional commitment and deteriorates political activism. Only a couple of thousands of Pegida demonstrators managed to challenge European governments by going on the streets. They filled newspaper headlines, caused public debates and counterdemonstrations, whereas almost 40.000 votes were silently filed away. Social networks might increase the actual number of participants by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

Furthermore, authenticity and trust towards the Internet and Social Media have been shattered due a high exposure of manipulation and hijackers. The online petition “Don´t ban Trump from the United Kingdom” is said to be falsified and 30.000 of its 46,296 signature are supposedly from only one source. The same goes for other websites, groups or accounts. Falsification and manipulation in the Internet have since its launch been in place and throughout the years, suspicions grew. 

Especially people who are not accustomed with the internet or Social Media and its ways have a hard time sharing their opinions and might back away from participating for a political cause. This leads to a compression and exclusion. Only those people who are already familiar with it have the potential to be active which narrows the participation down to a certain group of people and excludes the rest. Regarding statistics on who is using Social Media the exposed group can be featured as under 30. Keeping in mind that only those over 18 years are actually allowed to vote and that potentially only interested people who have a background in political participation engage in Social Media as well, miniature the pool. The Telegraph calls the #hugabrit campaign a viral phenomenon, however the operator only counts 1633 “likes” on Facebook and 1,047 Followers on Twitter. Out of almost 45 million potential electors these numbers are far from considerable.

Regarding the lack of commitment, potential hijacking or minimization of participants, “political activities over the Internet could have detrimental effects on the overall levels of political engagement and especially the effectiveness of engagement in achieving stated political goals.” The digital sphere should not be a substitute platform for real life political activism. Instead of enabling the people it risks to produce an armchair activism in which participants are afraid “to get their hands dirty and do the efforts required to actually achieve these goals.” The internet is just one of many instruments of activism, it should not be the endpoint. A like will not change the world.