Social media is increasingly used for social protest, but does internet-enabled action lead to ‘slacktivism’ or promote increased activism? We show that the answer to this question depends on prior level of activism, and on beliefs about the effectiveness of individual contribution to the collective campaign. Internet-enabled action was varied quasi-experimentally, with participants (n = 143) choosing whether or not to share a campaign on social media. Participants were then informed that sharing on social media had a big (high action efficacy) or small (low action efficacy) impact on achieving the campaign's goal. Prior levels of activism were measured before the experiment, and general levels of collective action were measured one week after the experiment. Taking internet-enabled action for one campaign increased future activism for other campaigns – but only in individuals who were already active and who perceived their actions to be an effective contribution to the campaign.
The ‘slacktivism’ effect
Collective action is as a key strategy for social change (Ellemers, van Knippenberg, & Wilke, 1990). Historically, collective action has commonly involved high-threshold activities, such as strikes and boycotts, which are typically perceived as effective for advancing social change (Vaccari et al., 2015). However, collective action varies in form and effectiveness; Wright, Taylor, and Moghaddam (1990, p. 995) suggest that ‘A group member engages in collective action anytime that he or she is acting as a representative of the group and the action is directed at improving the condition of the entire group’. With the ubiquity of the internet, early research was hopeful that technological advances would further advance social change (e.g., Shah, Cho, Eveland, & Kwak, 2005). Specifically, online forms of collective action, such as ‘liking’ a page on social media – also referred to as internet-enabled actions (e.g., Morozov, 2011) to acknowledge their physical footprint – are often seen as methods for mass mobilisation due to their low-threshold nature (Karpf, 2010). Consistent with this view, existing research has demonstrated that online participation can facilitate future collective action, at least under certain conditions (e.g., Kende et al., 2016). However, in contrast to this optimistic perspective, other researchers have characterised internet-enabled action as low-efficacy, token support or lazy activism (e.g., Christensen, 2011; Kristofferson, White, & Peloza, 2014; Morozov, 2011). The slacktivism hypothesis embodies this view, suggesting that internet-enabled actions inhibit future engagement (for a review, see Fuchs, 2014, Ch. 8). Consistent with the slacktivism hypothesis, Schumann and Klein (2015) found that engaging in online action inhibits offline participation for the same cause due to the feeling of making a satisfactory contribution to the group.