Q&A  | 

Slacktivism works and is necessary

"Social media help reach an audience and achieve a critical mass that are essential to protest and mobilization".

Tags: 'activimo social' 'activismo de sofá' 'activismo digital' 'activismo online' 'Algoritmos' 'Annenberg School for Communication' 'redes sociales' 'Sandra González Bailón' 'slacktivism' 'Soberanía digital'


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Sandra González Bailón completed her doctoral degree in Nuffield College (University of Oxford)and is now associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her research looks at how online networks shape exposure to information, with implications for how we think about political engagement, mobilization dynamics, information diffusion, and news consumption. "What we observe and hear is increasingly determined by digital technologies: from our interactions with friends and family, to the news we read on social media. My work looks at how these networks shape (sometimes inadvertently) what we see and what we do".

What impact does online activism have on our society and what do you consider to be the most important examples?

One of the areas in which social media has had the most visible impact is political activism. In particular, the wave of social mobilizations that began with the Arab Spring at the end of 2010 brought into the public spotlight the role that platforms such as Twitter or Facebook play in the dissemination of information and the coordination of collective action. 

Mobilizations such as those that took place in Spain with the Indignados or in the United States with Occupy Wall Street, and more recently, the movement against structural racism that is organized around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, made and make strategic use of social networks to activate and persuade.

But these  are not the first movements to use digital technologies to reach audiences and mobilize support. The Zapatista movement and the anti-globalization movement in the 90s already made use of an incipient web to organize and disseminate their message on a global scale, bypassing traditional media and their gatekeepers.

Does slacktivism have a greater impact than we think?

Communication networks are tools that make it possible to reach an audience and achieve a critical mass that is key to protest and mobilization – which is the immediate objective of any political movement.

Ultimately, the success of a political movement is measured in terms of structural transformations or legislative impact, and these goals require many years of coordinated actions that cannot be reduced to a digital platform. However, social media has made it possible to dramatically accelerate the organization of the critical mass necessary to raise political demands to the public spotlight.

Slacktivism is a central in triggering chain reactions and the rapid dissemination of messages. Retweeting or changing your profile picture is not the same as being actively involved in a political moveement, but they allow for those who are to achieve a visibility that would otherwise be much more difficult to attain.

In my research work we have quantified the impact that these sofa activists have on the visibility of political protests, and the activity they generate is crucial for the actions of an enganged minority to be heard.


How does social media impact online activism? Can algorithms decide which social causes succeed and which don't?

One way to answer this question is by analyzing the characteristics of the communication networks behind digital activism – in other words, what aspects of those networks allow to better reach a critical mass. Networks can be more or less horizontal, or they can be clustered, or exhibit core-periphery patterns.

All of these characteristics influence how messages are passed from person to person, and how chain reactions evolve. On the other hand, the social networks created by platforms such as Facebook or Twitter have been designed to maximize the time we spend on them.

Many of the elements that determine how we interact in these networks (for example, reactions to express emotions, or links to share messages) were not designed to facilitate social activism but to make us more “addicted” to the use of these technologies.

These platforms allow organizing collective action but also the manipulation of information and dissemination of content that aims to generate conflict or discord. The algorithms that decide which content is most visible do not discriminate between types of information or messages. Not only progressive but also reactionary movements  use these network infrastructures.

To understand how social media influences social activism, you need to understand how network connections channel messages and social influence, but also how the business models of this platforms affect the way they operate. The impact that algorithms have on content moderation is crucial in this regard. And there is not much transparency about how these algorithms work.

What are the main online activism platforms today?

A few years ago there was a lot of talk about the liberating potential of social networks and platforms like Facebook and Twitter, especially in countries with few political freedoms.

In more recent times the negative impact that these platforms have on the democratic process has been much more emphasized. Partly as a consequence of this public pressure, platforms have adopted more aggressive strategies in moderating content.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, the digital media ecosystem includes other forums, such as YouTube or Reddit, which have contributed to creating communities that advocate for extremism and radicalization. Each platform has its own standards, but there has been a general increase in the regulation of that content, and in the decision by platforms to close accounts or groups, or delete messages and videos.

This has accelerated the growth of alternative platforms, such as Parler, whose users  include far-right activists. At the same time, there are still examples of progressive activism (#metoo or #yotambien, #BLM etc) but it is clear that social media are spaces of confrontation that serve very different political objectives. And all this happens while the regulation policies of these spaces are still being shaped.

Finally, does the online environment facilitate exterior or foreign interference in social movements?

This question, in reality, has two parts: one is about whether or not there is foreign interference, and the second is about whether that interference modifies behaviors and opinions. The evidence regarding the first question is clear: there is intrusion, but there is also not much data regarding change in attitudes or the electoral impact of this kind of manipulation.

More generally, it has been extensively documented that the volume of automated activity on social media (in other words, bot-created posts) is almost as high as the volume of human-created posts. My research, for example, has analyzed the presence of these bots during political mobilization events and their relevance in the dissemination of information.

But this work and other recent research also suggest that fact-checked media remains the more relevant source of information. In other words, we have to contextualize what happens on social media (including attempts of manipulation) within the broader media ecosystem. There are many other information channels, including the interpersonal networks that movements have always made use of, long before internet  existed.

At the same time, it is also true that certain population groups are more vulnerable to manipulation. The fact that social media (and the algorithms on which they operate) make it easier to segment audiences creates unprecedented risks on which more research needs to be done.