Is Performative Activism bad?

On: September 28, 2020
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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the world listened to an ongoing battle of police brutality and racially motivated violence against black people. The video of police killing George Floyd went viral on Instagram and Twitter, followed by countless black squares posted in solidarity of the cause. 

This is contrary towards to the notion by communication scholars that social media makes people apathetic and disengaged (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948, 239; Putnam 2001; Kwak et al. 2018). Likewise, the blackout Tuesday protest has been criticized by BLM activist for a social media stunt without tangible impact. 


Performative Activism also known as Slacktivism, which will be used interchangeably throughout the article, was first coined in 1995 by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark (Christensen 2011). Initially, the term had positive connotation referring to youths engaging in bottom-up activities to affect society on a smaller scale (Christensen 2011). Over time the term has received a negative connotation, referring to the willingness to display online support without the intention of putting any significant effort (Davis 2011, Morozov 2009, and Kristofferson et al.). Individual participation is driven for a feel-good factor, fulfilling moral and psychological needs for minimum effort (Christensen 2011; Lane and Cin 2018). Slacktivism includes signing a petition, reposting, donating online, liking a page or post. Slacktivism has existed for a few years, seen in the ALS Association and KONY 2012, tactics have improved significantly over time. The impact of such campaigns has increased due to a higher degree of social media integration. 


Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, music executives, initially started the demonstration and act of solidarity through the #theshowmustbepaused (Anabel 2020). Their hashtag was intended for the influencers to pause their social media activities, to avoid silencing the posts of activists (Ahlgrim 2020). The movement quickly escalated to the people posting black squares and the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #blm. This prevented the initial goal of Blackout Tuesday as activists were suppressed by the algorithm. What was meant to be an act of solidary quickly turned into a trend.


Instagram’s algorithm cannot be predicted but is known to predominately favors active and large following users. The use of Instagram as a platform for the Blackout Tuesday campaign illustrated significance awareness of the movement. The goal of catching people’s attention was accomplished. However, the core goal of amplifying the voices of black activists was not successful due to Instagram’s algorithm. The algorithm played a large role in further pushing the notion of slacktivism as a negative act and a demeaning tool when it comes to digital social movements.  


Activists soon spread the news for supporters to stop using the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM, replacing it with #blackoutteusday. Crucial information about ongoing protests were overshadowed by black square posting excluding the information created by activists. The support for George Floyd and the Black community through posting a black square was viewed by mainstream media as more harmful than beneficial for the movement.  A picture without context continues to be just a picture. Is it enough for users to show their followers their support through posting a black square? Does it contribute anything to the movement? Should the motives of users be considered? All the questions started to rise throughout this protest. 

Activists shared resources on how supporters can go a step further in educating themselves and others on the cause. The different views on how to support the cause by activists created confusion among supporters. One activist expresses the disappointment in the lack of effort put by a supporter who posts a black square while another expresses gratefulness. The root of slacktivism’s debate whether it should be seen in a positive or negative light, leaves supporters and activists divided. 


Slacktivism is not a new phenomenon. Signing a petition or donating when a cause comes to your doorstep falls into the category of performative activism. People donate money and sign petitions with no further support, yet these individuals are not as highly criticized as performative activists online. Slacktvists are seen every four years when elections take place. Most voters go into a voting poll without any further action towards their vote. The backlash towards the analog world of slacktivism is minimum compared to a digital performer. Maybe the real question we need to research is, is why slacktivism sheds a negative light? 

It is time to overlook the user’s intention. Research has supported the hypothesis that slacktivism strengthens social movements and increase political engagement (Lane and Cin 2018; Boulianne 2015). Boulianne (2015) illustrated over 80% positive coefficients between the correlation of social media and offline participation. Christensen (2012) claims there is no evidence that social media harms political engagement. Therefore, maybe it is time to move beyond the intentions of users and remove the negative stigma of slacktivism.         

The black squares on Instagram showed a weak spot when incorporating a campaign within the platform. Nevertheless, the spotlight and benefits that emerged by the black squares on Instagram should not go unnoticeable. Through social movements in the digital realm, the outcome of slacktivism has been mostly positive. There is no manner to control user’s intention and posting, therefore before a different strategy in organizing digital activism, which takes both mortality and pragmatism into account, is introduced, activist groups should embrace slacktivism as a tool. 


Ahlgrim, Callie. “Here’s Everything You Need to Know about Blackout Tuesday and #TheShowMustBePaused Initiatives,” June 3, 2020. 

Anabel, Anita. “The Evolution of the Black Square Movement on Instagram and What to Do Next,” June 3, 2020. 

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Daniel S. Lane & Sonya Dal Cin. “Sharing beyond Slacktivism: the effect of socially observable prosocial media sharing on subsequent offline helping behavior.” Information, Communication & Society, 21:11,2018:1523-1540, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1340496

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Kristofferson, Kirk, Katherine White, and John Peloza. “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” The Journal of consumer research 40.6, 2014: 1149–1166.

Kwak, Nojin, Daniel S Lane, Brian E Weeks, Dam Hee Kim, Slgi S Lee, and Sarah Bachleda. “Perceptions of Social Media for Politics: Testing the Slacktivism Hypothesis.” Human Communication Research44, no. 2 , 2018: 197–221.

Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Merton, R. K.. “Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action”. In L. Bryson (Ed.), The Communication of Ideas, 1948. 

Morozov, Evgeny. “The Brave New World of Slacktivism,” Foreign Policy, 1166 Journal of Consumer Research. 2009.

Putnam, R. D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community(1st ed.). New York: Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, 2001.

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