What is Armchair Activism and How To Avoid It

The online community is constantly growing, seeking new information and novel ways of connecting. As the number of people with online profiles increases significantly over time, scientists need to be aware of the resource at hand. Formulating bonds between researchers, non-government organizations (NGOs), and the public is a key technique for encouraging participation and collaboration. But, there are caveats that come with targeting online users as representatives for conservation causes. The leading issue: armchair activism.

Armchair activism, or more informally named “slacktivism” refers to actions performed online in support of a cause that require low involvement, time, or commitment. Normally, the armchair activists are slow to participate in person, or when donations are involved. (Some have even gone so far as to garner the stereotype of regularly talking your ear off about how wrong everyone else is and how morally superior they are.) But, more generally, slacktivists remain on social media, signing petitions and joining support groups to satisfy their conservation guilt.

As a component of Columbia’s Graduate Seminar in Conservation Biology, I conducted research on the top six environmental non-government organizations and their social media presence. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Sierra Club, Oceana, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) all have active Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter accounts (all of which post stunning photos, if you ever find yourself in need of a nature-fix).

I quantified the number of followers each organization had and the number of posts they shared over time, and correlated it with publicly-available revenue data. I was looking to answer a simple yet intriguing question: does having more followers really make a difference? Or are conservation organizations just accumulating an army of armchair activists?

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Note: WCS joined most social media platforms later than other NGOs, likely a contributing factor to their lower following. Also, YouTube subscriptions are generally low because most third-party sites embed YouTube videos in their pages. (Interesting from a finance and marketing perspective, YouTube usually only breaks-even and very minimally contributes to Google’s annual profits as a result of low site-visitation and external video viewing.)

Potentially unsurprising, the number of followers does correlate with the total net assets of each organization. This implies that social media followers may be more active than society gives them credit for, and that they may be donating just as frequently as non-social media users. Furthermore, the number of posts an organization published did not influence the number of followers or the organization’s net revenue. This suggests that followers are engaging with posts based on content, not simply volume.

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Even if I had found that the number of followers online was not correlated to revenue, implying that slacktivism may be rampant, would it really be that bad? How accurate is our negative perspective of slacktivists?

Some online campaigns are now intentionally targeting slacktivists, because it can actually have positive repercussions for an NGO. Token forms of support, such as re-tweets, re-blogs, shares, or petition signatures, can give lobbyist groups the backing they require to move policy forward. Additionally, organizations can use these small requests as a way to build a relationship with participants that can lead to deeper engagement.

Finally, although the actions of the slacktivist might not be substantially helpful, their distribution of conservation material may encourage or enlighten more enterprising individuals to pursue action. As a means of dissemination, slacktivists might not be ignominious.

That being said, I do not believe slacktivism can replace activism in value. While the benefits gained from engaging armchair activists (awareness raising, in particular) are important, the physical act of tackling conservation issues cannot be accomplished without widespread action. The most important thing to remember is that these actions do not have to be huge; every small act helps. Replacing single-use utensils, cups, and mugs with reusable dishes; reducing your meat consumption; collecting litter; donating without requiring a gift or reward in exchange; switching to a green energy provider or install solar panelling; purchasing ethical clothing or makeup; offsetting your carbon footprint; the options are nearly endless and most can be accomplished easily without disruption to your daily life.

Do you know any so-called slacktivists? Perhaps a colleague or friend on Facebook who posts about conservation issues regularly? Next time you see them, talk to them about their contributions and remind them how every little bit helps. Their “likes” may go farther than they know, and encourage them to participate in more hands-on activities, like a beach or park clean. They’re all drops in the proverbial bucket.

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– Steph

P.S. an additional resource worth reading.

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