As part of a series of interviews with LSE Faculty on themes related to the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission (T3), Dr Rodolfo Leyva talks to LSE MSc student Jack Marks about politics online, ‘slacktivism’ and to what extent social media contributes to materialism.
JM: You’ve written a lot about the concept of Slacktivism. Could you explain what Slacktivism is and what its implications are?
RL: Sure. Slacktivism refers to low risk, low cost, activities, typically via social media, with the purpose of raising awareness, producing change, or granting satisfaction to the person engaged in it. Typical examples would be things like, posting a political post, clicking ‘Like’ on a political meme, changing Facebook profile pictures in support of a political cause, or signing online petitions. These activities are supposed to be about raising awareness or supporting a political cause, but, in part, my contention, and the contention of those who are more sceptical about online political participation, is that it just helps to exercise a sense of moral justification without the need to actually engage meaningfully.
Mind you there are some online political activities that are meaningful and to extent relatively effective, like hacktivism and the digital whistleblowing of groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks, but that’s quite apart from Slacktivism.
JM: So it’s more the Change.org petitions and things which the majority of people are engaged in.
RL: Indeed. Hacking, and practices like that, which are significantly more high risk as they’re illegal, but that’s not what the majority of online political practices entail. So the majority of people are engaged in online participation that can be described as ‘Slacktivist’.
JM: So it could be looked at as online political activity which is more about making the user feel good, rather than actually affecting any change.
RL: Yeah this is a big part of the debate. That is, the debate tends to centre on whether online political activity is actually meant to induce some change, or whether people are just doing it to feel good about themselves or whether this is then going to lead to offline political engagement – which entails tried and tested methods for inducing political change like voting, protest, demonstrations, boycotts, all the things we know more or less work but also take considerably more commitment. The more optimistic branch, and particularly the earlier research on social media and politicisation, was very optimistic, and some still are, that these blander forms of online participation will be converted into offline participation. Those of us in the more sceptical branch argue that it won’t do that, and that in fact it might have the opposite effect. It might just lead people to conflate online political engagement with political participation period, and actually hinder meaningful political participation. So, I clicked “like” on an anti-Trump picture hence I did my part. And or it’s just a way for people to basically peacock, and project to others that they’re political involved or ‘woke’ as it were.
JM: So following on from that is your research into the 2015 UK General Election. You found that social media political activity had minimal effects, and that’s largely because it was mostly slacktivism. Do you think any of that changed in 2017 that some of it came offline, or was it much the same?
RL: It was very much more of the same. The original reason I started with this research was because there were lots of journalists and social theorists who were speculating, without any empirical evidence, that social media was revolutionising democracy and how it is going to lead to a more Habermasian conception of the public sphere, and as sort of an activist myself, I just thought: I don’t see it. This is not the same as getting tear gassed, beaten up by the cops, or going to meetings to organise demonstrations and fighting with like-minded people, about the most inane things like whether to hold an anti-war teach in outdoors or indoors. This is a totally different level of engagement to what said pundits and theorists were describing as online political participation.
Correspondingly, in my research I found no effect of online participation in the 2015 election, and a growing body of literature supports much the same position now. Relatedly, there was a lot of talk about how Corbyn was mobilising the youth through social media, and again, like I suspected and predicted, it turned out to be an insignificant increase in youth turnout – 2% or something like that. But it was just loud. What the internet does is it just amplifies things, it makes things seem more significant and out of proportion than they actually are.
JM: Less youth-quake, more youth-tremor.
RL: Exactly, If that. The youth turned out in the places they were expected to turnout anyway, and most of them are Labour supporters to begin with. This is not to take anything away from Corbyn’s campaign, but I would argue that the reasons he managed to pick up as many voters as he did was because of traditional political campaign methods. He went out, did a lot of canvassing, a lot of door-to-door stuff, large-scale events. And this to say nothing about his progressive policy platform, which likely resonated with many left-leaning and/or financially struggling Britons.
JM: So, the more old-school talking in front of big crowds, jumping on stage at music festivals.
RL: Exactly, he did a lot of that. And he did a lot of that in new physical outdoor settings, and that was probably significantly more effective than any of the online stuff.
JM: So it didn’t happen there, but are there any contexts where it maybe is coming offline a bit – so I’m thinking the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s inauguration, which was an impressive event which couldn’t have been organised, or at least organised as effectively, without social media.
RL: Oh, I don’t take away from the organising capacity of social media. It’s a perfect tool for political organisation and it definitely facilitates that. What I have issue with is the claim that social media is a catalyst, or even a causal agent in increasing political participation. That, I disagree with almost entirely.
That is, people who are political interested already, would have probably been politically interested or engaged without social media, and these folks use social media as a way to organise these large events. And it’s a social organisational tool, and that’s what communicative tools do best. Yes, it has that power, but again with the women’s march, these are just one time events. They’re not totally dissimilar from slacktivism in that they are these once-off, cathartic events to help people feel good about themselves and feel like they actually did something but the next day they carry on as if nothing happened.
And it’s nothing to take away from these large scale demonstrations, but these are all permitted by the state. They have permits etc. That’s generally not how effective protests work. You don’t ask the state permission, and if state officials grant permission it’s probably because they know its not going to have to change anything. Real considerable change happens from things like civil disobedience, from breaking laws. From meaningful and engaged and sustained political participation, not once-off events.
JM: You mentioned the naivety that people had, that the internet would act as a causal mechanism for political engagement and activism. Is what we’re seeing now then, with slacktivism, the utopian vision that some people had of what the internet could be crashing up against reality?
RL: Pretty much. And again, I agree that the internet definitely has the potential to improve democratic participation and to make democracy more participatory, more inclusive, and more direct. There’s the schemes for instance that have had a lot of success in Brazil, in Port Alegre in particular. They’re participatory budget schemes, where communities get to decide on a portion of how their tax revenue gets spent. Normally this is done by beaurocrats, but here instead, local people get to decide on how to spend it. Incidentally, these schemes have really improved political engagement, political literacy, standard of living. Even the world bank, which doesn’t always prioritise genuine, progressive democracy, agree that these schemes are fairly effective. Now I think the internet and social media can help to expand these schemes, make them more feasible, viable, and large-scale.
JM: So just following on from that, can you think of any other ways online political participation can be made more meaningful. Is the answer in things like public consultations, is it in private initiatives via campaign groups like 38 Degrees, and what are the mechanisms by which online participation could be made more effective?
RL: That’s a tricky question. The only way that they’ll have any real effect is if whatever comes out of online deliberations transforms into material offline pressure. If you just sign a petition, governments aren’t going to care. If five million people sign it, they can still shrug it off. But if from that, people start to take significant offline political action, demonstrations and protests and civil disobedience, unless that happens online participation wont do anything. The fact is, vested interests and powerful elites don’t really care about what happens online. I mean, they pay attention to it, to kind of see where opinions fluctuate, but until there is a corresponding material threat, online engagement probably wont do much.
What’s interesting is it is more effective with commercial interests. So corporations are obsessed with their brand and their image. In a lot of cases it’s the only way they can distinguish themselves seeing as most of them sell the same crap anyway. They’re terrified of any negative press.
JM: So commercial firms have become better targets for online activism then governments.
RL: Yes Definitely.
JM: So you’re seeing that with say, Laura Ingraham being pressured by advertisers boycotting her show after insulting Parkland shooting survivors.
RL: Indeed, and Sean Hannity before that. He had to go back on, I think it was the Seth Rich conspiracy, it was some conspiratorial bullshit as usual. He was acting all hard, but as soon as the coffee-machine makers Keurig pulled their advertising from the show, he backed-down immediately.
Incidently that’s one of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda model filters. It works because it’s a material pressure. We are going to pull our money because we don’t want to be affiliated with you.
JM: It’s really interesting, because it’s this materialist awareness of what actually matters, and how you can actually affect change, but just using a very materialist mechanism. Another big focus of your research is how social media affects attitudes towards materialism. How can social media make people more materialistic?
RL: Well the media in general can do this, but social media can exacerbate it. Generally speaking, it’s because commercial media is designed to make money and they do this through advertising: they sell consumers to companies. To do that, they have to bombard you constantly with products. They need to convince you that you want and need this stuff, that you need to buy it. The way they generally do that is by conflating these products with aspirational goals. You can see it particularly strongly in the US, but also the UK, and increasingly in the BRICS nations. China is really unique in that in 30 years they went from a radical authoritarian socialist system to being almost totally individualistic and materialistic. It’s not too dissimilar from what we have, but the fact they got there in such a short period of time is remarkable. And I don’t think they could have done that without mass media. And now that it’s everywhere, and as the communications technology continues to improve and disseminate materialistic messages, younger generations are becoming more self-interested, narcissistic and materialistic than previous generations.
JM: And this brings us back to how people are engaging politically, doing so using the tools and logic of materialism.
RL: Yes, I think it comes from or is related to a consumerist mindset.
JM: So we could then see, as a result of, say Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who is currently having a spat with Trump, people using a kind of materialistic vote, buying things off Amazon to spite Trump.
RL: Yes exactly. Even though it has grotesque labour violations and barely pays any taxes. But generally, this process begins at infancy, particularly for the millennial generation, from the 1980s, who’ve grown up in this environment. Representations of materialism are considerably more endemic and exaggerated than they were up to the 1970s. From after World War II to the 1970s, yes it was still a very capitalist society, but the level of materialistic messages weren’t as pronounced and weren’t as scientifically honed. And it was to some extent a little more balanced with more community oriented perspectives and deeds. Taxation rates were higher and more progressive with higher spending on social programmes. There was a bit more balance between the individual and the community and society at large. Following that, from the 1980s onwards, Reagan and Thatcher coming in and bringing us into the Neo-liberal era, it’s become totally unbalanced. There’s no such thing as society, it’s only the individual. Your only concern is yourself. And consumer culture has cultivated and mirrored that mindset to the extent that newer generations are considerably more materialistic than previous ones. This brings us to socialisation, where you’re bombarded with these things over a long period of time.
That’s the thing with media effects generally. They’re generally proposed as a linear function of frequent exposure to consistent media messages, so it takes a very long time. And that may partly explain why social media have not had a pretty big effect, yet, because it is still relatively new. Any effect that it might have will likely take a very long time and we don’t know how long that might be. We just know that the effects of mass media stem from a long socialisation/cultivation process that generally begins from infancy onwards.
JM: One last question, and I apologise for what will be a quadruple-barrelled question, What would be the best case scenario and the worst case scenario in terms of how social media will shape materialist attitudes? And similarly, what is the best case scenario and worst case scenario for how social media will be used as a tool for political change?
RL: There is a real probability that social media will exacerbate materialistic tendencies, because as people move away from traditional media and are more immersed in social media environments, companies can become more clever about how they target you. They can do analyses of your general social and consumer behaviour and assign a psychographic makeup, and so the ads are even more honed and targeted then ever. So it’s possible that social media will exacerbate materialist attitudes.
As for how social media can be used to mobilise significant political action, I have no idea. I’m very sceptical that it can. I think it’s just a tool, like anything else. The only thing I would say is that it has to be used as a means to enact real-world, offline political practices. It can’t just stick to online realms.
What’s worse is that corporations might soon learn that their bottom-lines aren’t significantly effected by a Twitter storm. That people are just loud online, and move on quickly. They might just catch onto that these Tweet-storms aren’t going to hurt us in any way. I hope they wont, because it seems to be the only thing we have right now that can get them to mildly stop or change their deplorable practices.
JM: So you’re pessimistic that even this little positive thing we have, which is that companies at least seem to respond to social media pressure in a way that governments tend not to, might actually stop because really it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t last.
RL: Yes. And further to this, social media is messing up people’s attention spans. Studies have shown that it’s totally messing up people’s attention-span and they’re getting shorter and shorter. People will just move on to the next outrage and not do anything except talk about it on Facebook or Twitter. They’ll boycott Coca-Cola for a day, but the next day they’ll buy two.
Basically, unless it’s used a means to foment and induce offline political pressures, not just single events but sustained political pressure, I don’t see that social media can have significant political effects.
We also don’t necessarily want our political participation to be moved online in the first place. People need to deliberate for a long time about different issues. If we give them the option to just really quickly cast a judgement about or vote on something that should take a lot of time to think about and carefully deliberate on, like who do you want to represent you and what public policies you want, if you take all that away and make it more convenient so that people can basically vote in between their Tweets, that might produce some very troubling outcomes.
Dr Rodolfo Leyva is a Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. He has a PhD in Political Sociology from the King’s College London School of Education, Communication and Society.