Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Assignment 5: Online Activism as Slacktivism

I have divided my assignment on online activism into two parts:
  1.  the creation of an online petition, and
  2.  my analysis of online activism as slacktivism.

Creating an online petition

For my petition, I decided to focus on American law enforcement’s interference with iPhone encryption. In December 2015, Syed Farook and his wife allegedly killed 14 people during a terrorist attack in San Bernadino, California (Nakashima, 2016). In February 2016, United States Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym ordered Apple to create a backdoor to their iPhone encryption, in order to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation research Farook (“Order Compelling”, 2016).

According to the Washington Post (Nakashima, 2016), this would allow the FBI to see “contacts, photos and iMessages” on Farook’s iPhone 5C. Due to end-to-end encryption, there is no simple way for law enforcement to access this data. As FBI Director James Comey told Congress in March, investigators are unable to crack Farook’s phone without Apple’s help (Selyukh, 2016).

So far, Apple has refused to cooperate with the FBI, with Apple CEO Tim Cook stating:
"Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession...Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control...While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect” (Cook, 2016).
The unlocking of the iPhone in the context of the San Bernardino terrorist attack seems divisive. So far, a petition hosted by WhiteHouse.gov in support of Apple’s stance has over 22,000 signatures (“Halt efforts”, 2016). Other petitions on the topic have cropped up, but have been less popular (Killham, 2016). A grassroots movement calling itself “Don’t Break Our Phones” held rallies on February 23 in support of Apple (“Don’t Break”, 2016). Photos: (Greer, 2016).

Rallies against FBI backdoor in iPhones, Feb 23, 2016

However, while Apple users may be rallying behind the company, most Americans seem to approve of the FBI’s efforts to “crack” the phone. According to the Pew Research Center, 51 per cent of those surveyed believed Apple should comply with the FBI, by unlocking the iPhone (“More Support”, 2016). The think tank polled 1,002 adults in late February to compile their survey, “More Support for Justice Department Than for Apple in Dispute Over Unlocking iPhone”. Amongst those surveyed, adults aged 18 to 29 were least favorable towards the unlocking of iPhones (“More Support”). Only 47 per cent of that group believed the phones should be unlocked, compared with 54 per cent of adults over 65 years old (“More Support”).

I titled my petition “Judge Sherry Pym: Stop Trying to Crack the iPhone”; using language employed by similar petitions on the same topic. I was shocked at the eased of posting a petition. As a platform, crowd-sourced Avaaz petitions have a major drawback: posters can only write simple text in support of their cause. Without HTML and all its possibilities, it was difficult to convey my multi-modal message.

Online activism as slacktivism

Creating a successful online petition relies on several factors including sharing the petition widely on social media, engaging influencers and the media, and “[having] a specific achievable ask” (Leask, 2016). However, I will be ignoring this advice as I have no interest in the success of  my petition, aside from fulfilling the requirements of this assignment. That’s because I believe most online activism is “slacktivism”: "an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact” (Morozov, 2009).

To understand my distaste for slacktivism, I will point you to the phenomenon of Kony 2012 (Invisible Children, 2012). When the viral video was released, I was working for a non-profit in West Africa. As an international aid worker, I was attuned to the "imperialist overtones" of the video (Dewey, 2014), and reacted similarly to Natalia Saaed:
“Without doing any research, I was impressed by the [Kony 2012] video and liked everything to do with Invisible Children on Facebook. It was not until later when the critiques of the campaign came out that I realised I had not formed my own opinion and had blindly followed a trend of the time. After further research on the facts I hit ‘unlike’ on the relevant pages as fast as I had hit like” (2014).
Over four years, “Kony 2012” has racked up over 100 million views on YouTube (Invisible Children, 2012). The video kicked off a social media campaign of the same name, which garnered massive attention. The group behind video, Invisible Children, ostensibly wanted to stop abduction and enslavement of children by Ugandan militant Joseph Kony. The Kony 2012 campaign was flawed from the outset, though it had clear action items:
  1. signing a petition to stop Joseph Kony,
  2.  buying a Kony 2012 branded bracelet and a $30 “action kit”,
  3. donating to the charity, and
  4.  putting up posters on 20 April 2012 (Invisible Children, 2012).
Despite the “achievable action” offered by the Kony 2012 campaign, there was a barrier to participation (Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., Lala, G., Stuart, A., Hall, L. J., & Goddard, A., 2015, p. 365).  Kony 2012 “required a very high commitment” by asking participants to spend money on an action kit and by asking them to put up posters. In the end, the online protest movement “[failed] to achieve its stated policy objective” (Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., Lala, G., Stuart, A., Hall, L. J., & Goddard, A.).

Aside from barriers to participation, “the meddling, imperialist overtones of Kony would forever haunt the hashtag" (Dewey, 2014). Describing “Kony 2012”, Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire says:
“this is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero, rescuing Ugandan children… It does not end the problem… Its furthering that narrative about Africans: totally unable to help themselves, and needing outside help all the time” (2012).

Morozov’s definition of “slacktivism” involving a “feel-good factor” plays into the Kony 2012 story. As noted in the European Journal of Social Psychology (Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., Lala, G., Stuart, A., Hall, L. J., & Goddard, A., 2015, p. 365):
“There is … good reason to think that participants believed that, by sharing the YouTube video or ‘liking’ it on Facebook, they were directly supporting a campaign to capture a war criminal (Waldorf, 2013). Kony2012 exposed people to a powerful delegitimizing narrative and presented them with achievable action, allowing them to overcome uncertainty and act to embody imagined cognitive alternatives” .
Within weeks of the “Kony 2012”’s release, the campaign imploded spectacularly. At the so-called “Cover the Night” event — the third plank of the Kony 2012 campaign— only three people showed up to put up anti-Kony posters in Los Angeles (Dewey, 2015). One major criticism came from charities like Oxfam, who stated “renewed military action” in Central Africa could possibly backfire and cause more violence (Curtis, 2012). There was also concerns about the financial dealings about the Invisible Children charity behind Kony 2012 (Abad-Santos, 2012). Four years later, Joseph Kony is still at large and the charity behind the campaign, Invisible Campaign, is planning to shutter (Testa, 2014).

A more recent example of slacktivism is the Bring Back Our Girls movement. In April 2014, over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Northern Nigeria by the terrorist group, Boko Haram (Dewey, 2014 & Saaed, 2014). Rallying behind the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, millions tweeted their support (Dewey), including American First Lady Michelle Obama (The First Lady, 2014). However — like Kony 2012 — #BringBackOurGirls was a campaign to better Africa that was “co-opted by outsiders” (Dewey).

My paper would not be complete without conceding that online activism is not always slacktivism. The aforementioned study in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed that 30 per cent of respondents were willing to take their activism offline, by sending a letter to a government minister “supporting or opposing efforts to bring [Joseph] Kony to justice” (Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., Lala, G., Stuart, A., Hall, L. J., & Goddard, A., 2015, p. 360). Likewise, following the release of “Kony 2012” the African Union announced it would send 5,000 peacekeepers to the region to the warlord (Dewey, 2014). Similarly, the rise in popularity of #BringBackOurGirls is credited with drawing the attention of world powers, who pledged to help find the kidnapped girls (Dewey).

However, I believe that relying on slacktivism is dangerous. It simplifies complex geo-political situations into black and white scenarios (Yeoh, 2014), or —in the words of Rosebell Kagumire— “good guy” and “bad guy” scenarios:
“I have a problem with [Kony 2012], because this is the same narrative we have seen about Africa for centuries and in this 21st century we aught see something more different [sic]…We do not think that this story can be told in this simple way (Kagumire, 2012).
Slacktivism piggybacks on decades of work of activists without acknowledgement (Cadwalladr, 2013). Most offensively, it imbues outsiders with the “feel-good” delusion that they have actually helped Africa (Morozov, 2009).

Slacktivism is so inauthentic, it makes me queasy. I don’t want the success of activism campaign’s to be dictated by website traffic, volume of tweets or newsletter open rates. Indeed, if “humanitarianism [is repackaged] as commodity activism, human rights militancy, and clicktivism” is it humanitarianism at all (Waldorf, 2012, p. 469)? Describing the success of online petition site Avaaz, then-head of press Sam Barratt told the Guardian: “We’re like a laboratory for vitality. For every campaign we test perhaps 20 different versions of it to see what people want” (as cited in Cadwalladr, 2013). What Barratt fails to see is that good international development isn’t about “what people want”, it's about what’s good for the communities at stake (Yeoh, 2014).

Until aid organizations like Avaaz abandon this top down approach to international aid, nothing lasting will be accomplished. In his study of online political activism Henrik Christensen concluded that “effortless Internet [activism] are at worst harmless fun…[and] at best, they may help raise awareness about political issues” (2011). However, I don’t believe it’s “harmless fun”. Slacktivism lets people pass the buck.


Abad-Santos, A. (2012, March 8). “The Problems with 'Stop Kony’”. The Wire. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.thewire.com/global/2012/03/problem-stop-kony/49634/.

Cadwalladr, C. (2013, November 16). “Inside Avaaz – can online activism really change the world?” The Guardian. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/nov/17/avaaz-online-activism-can-it-change-the-world.

Christensen, H. S. (2011). “Political Activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or Political Participation by Other Means?” First Monday. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3336/2767, DOI:10.5210/fm.v16i2.3336.

Cole, T. [Teju Cole]. (2012, March 8). “1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex” [Twitter]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from

——. (2014a, 7 May). “Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable” [Twitter]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from https://twitter.com/tejucole/status/464240061601812480.

——. (2014b, 7 May). “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing” [Twitter]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from https://twitter.com/tejucole/status/464244083821907968.

Cook, T. (2016, February 16). “A Message to Our Customers.” Retrieved March 7, 2016, from

Curtis, P. (2012, April 19). “Hunt for Joseph Kony will kill more innocent people, charities warn”. The Guardian. Retrieved March 7, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/19/hunt-joseph-kony-kill-innocents.

Dewey, C. (2014, May 8). “#Bringbackourgirls, #Kony2012, and the complete, divisive history of ‘hashtag activism’”. The Washington Post. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/05/08/bringbackourgirls-kony2012-and-the-complete-divisive-history-of-hashtag-activism/.

— —. (2015, April 21). “Three years after it fell apart, Kony 2012 may have finally changed the world.” The Washington Post. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/04/21/three-years-after-it-fell-apart-kony-2012-may-have-finally-changed-the-world/.

“Don’t Break Our Phones” [website] (n.d.) Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from https://www.dontbreakourphones.org/.

Dunsford, G. [gwynduns]. (2012, March 7). “What is this #Kony2012 everyone is talking about on FB? Reading http://visiblechildren.tumblr.com” [Twitter]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from

— —. (2016, February 26). “Judge Sherry Pym: Stop trying to crack the iPhone” [petition]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from

——. [gwynduns]. (2016, March 3). “Ugh. It only took like 2 seconds to post this petition. https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/FBI_Director_James_Comey_Judge_Sherry_Pym_Stop_trying_to_crack_the_iPhone_1/share/?new … #NMN cc @JessL” [Twitter]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from

Greer, E. [EvanFFTF]. (2016, February 23). “Rallies against FBI backdoor in iPhones, Feb 23, 2016” [photos]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from https://imgur.com/gallery/WIzWH.

“Halt efforts that compel Apple and other device makers to create a ‘backdoor’ for the Government to access citizens data” [petition]. (2016, February 17). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/apple-privacy-petition.

Invisible Children [Invisible Children]. (2012, March 5). “Kony 2012” [video file]. Retrieved on March 7, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc.

Kagumire, R. [Rosebelle Kagumire]. (7 March, 2012). “My Response to Kony 2012” [video]. Retrieved on 4 March, 2016 from https://youtu.be/KLVY5jBnD-E?t=2m48s.

Killham, E. (2016, February 18). “Online petitions universally support Apple encryption stance.” Cult of Mac [website]. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.cultofmac.com/413157/online-petitions-universally-support-apple-encryption-stance.

Leask, J. (2016, March 1). “Assignment 5: So you want to start an online petition?” [blog]. New Media Narratives. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://nmn2016.blogspot.com/2016/03/so-you-want-to-start-online-petition.html.

“More Support for Justice Department Than for Apple in Dispute Over Unlocking iPhone”. (2016, February 22). Pew Research Center. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.people-press.org/2016/02/22/more-support-for-justice-department-than-for-apple-in-dispute-over-unlocking-iphone/.

Morozov, E. (2009, May 19). “Foreign Policy: Brave New World Of Slacktivism”. NPR. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104302141.

Nakashima, E. (2016, February 17). “Apple vows to resist FBI demand to crack iPhone linked to San Bernardino attacks”. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-wants-apple-to-help-unlock-iphone-used-by-san-bernardino-shooter/2016/02/16/69b903ee-d4d9-11e5-9823-02b905009f99_story.html.

“Order Compelling Apple Inc. To Assist Agents in Search” [court file]. (2016, February 16). Retrieved March 7, 2016, from https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2714001/SB-Shooter-Order-Compelling-Apple-Asst-iPhone.pdf.

Saaed, N. (2014, May 23). “#BringBackOurGirls, hashtag activism, and the diaspora”.  WhyDev. Retrieved March 7, 2016, from http://www.whydev.org/bringbackourgirls-hashtag-activism-and-the-diaspora.

Selyukh, A. (2016, March 1). “FBI Chief Tells Congress Encryption Is Creating 'Warrantproof' Devices”. NPR. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/03/01/468599364/fbi-chief-tells-congress-encryption-is-creating-warrant-proof-devices

Testa, J. (2014, December 15). “The End Of Invisible Children”. Buzzfeed. Retrieved March 7, 2016, from http://www.buzzfeed.com/jtes/the-end-of-invisible-children#.raEv3l1Gg

The First Lady [FLOTUS]. “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It's time to #BringBackOurGirls. -mo” [Twitter]. Retrieved March 7, 2016, from

Thomas, E. F., McGarty, C., Lala, G., Stuart, A., Hall, L. J., & Goddard, A. (2015). “Whatever happened to Kony2012? Understanding a global Internet phenomenon as an emergent social identity”. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 45(3), 356-367 12p. DOI:10.1002/ejsp.2094.

Waldorf, L. (2012). “White noise: Hearing the disaster”. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 4. 469–474. DOI: 10.1093/jhuman/hus025.

Yeoh, W. (2014, May 20). “5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible.” WhyDev. Retrieved March 07, 2016, from http://www.whydev.org/5-reasons-why-effective-marketing-and-good-development-work-are-incompatible.

1 comment:

  1. “this is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero, rescuing Ugandan children… It does not end the problem… Its furthering that narrative about Africans: totally unable to help themselves, and needing outside help all the time”

    I remember hearing all about the Kony Campaign and at the time thinking it deserved support, that more people needed to hear about it. I did not consider it from that point of view, though! I can't say I personally ever thought it meant that African's could not help themselves. Sometimes people need assistance, but that is probably my thought process developed from how and where I was raised. I probably would feel much differently if I was from Africa, and suddenly someone from the other side of the world was trying to speak for me. The twitter comments from Teju Cole make me realize how narrow of a view I have on this subject. Meaning well does not mean you're in the right. Thanks for sharing this!