Slacktivism: How raising awareness is hurting the cause

The night that Casey Anthony was acquitted, my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with people raging against the perceived lack of justice that had been done by letting her go when most of the nation believed her to be guilty.

Used by permission – flickr account was_bedeutet_jemanden

Statuses on my Facebook wall ranged from:
“Justice is in God’s hands only.”
to “Casey Anthony is free. God help her, because I wouldn’t.”
to “That bitch needs to get cut before she leaves the courthouse.”
What can I say?  I have an eclectic set of friends.

By late afternoon a new kind of post was circling the web, an invitation to “Leave the light on for Caylee.”  The idea was to turn your porch lights on that night and leave them on until the morning as a sign of love and support for the deceased, Caylee Anthony.  Two million people RSVP’ed to a Facebook group, pledging to light up their porches for Caylee the night that her mother’s trial ended.

Now, I understand that people needed a constructive outlet for their rage and grief over something that the media had blown up in our faces for months, only to be dropped in a hot potato of disappointment.  But then again, that’s just it. This wasn’t a constructive outlet. Running up electric bills for a few hours did nothing to help Caylee, or better yet to help children like her who live in abusive and perilous households.  In fact, I think it hurt the cause of those living children instead of helping them.  Here’s why.

Every time someone participates in an act of cyber-activism they are bolstering their own image as someone who cares, in their own mind and in the mind of others.  It’s easy to believe that I’ve done something constructive when I say “Post this as your status for an hour if you know someone who’s been touched by cancer,” but in fact, all I’ve done is make myself feel like a person who does something to help a cause.  Clicking “attend” on a pseudo-event where I promise to leave my porch light on just means I’ve cast myself in my friends’ eyes as someone who cares.  I can go to bed at night sleeping easier thinking I’ve done something, when in fact I haven’t.

This feeling of doing good without having done anything at all is called slacktivism. I’ve done my bit in the virtual world, so I no longer feel burdened to actually help anyone.  I won’t sign up to be a CASA court appointed advocate to help prevent other children from ending up like Caylee because I already left a light on.  I won’t give money to cancer research because I’ve soothed my conscience.  I’m an activist on screen so that I don’t have to make the effort to be one in real life.

October is breast cancer awareness month, where companies produce five dollar bags of pink M&M’s so that we’ll buy them and feel like we’ve helped the cause because of the fraction of a cent they send along to help research.  On Facebook an annually annoying campaign has already begun: women posting cryptic statuses with innuendos that are supposed to somehow raise awareness about breast cancer.  Two years ago the mysterious status posted was the color of their bra. Last year they posted the location of their purse in statements like: “I like it on the kitchen table.”  That was a joy to see on the Facebook statuses of the teenagers I know.

This year’s innuendo status has women posting that they are pregnant and having cravings.