St Louis, MO - Slacktivists are the hipsters of the digital world: everybody recognises them but no one claims to be one. The term likely predates the internet campaigns with which it is now associated - whereas once bumper stickers and buttons sufficed to show conviction, there are now groups to join, videos to share, causes to like, and other static virtual entities whose worth is calculated in clicks. The mediated nature of digital politics distinguishes "slacktivism" from its off-line equivalent: on the internet, one can not only be chastised for one's purported beliefs but chastised for purporting to believe at all. Accusations of slacktivism rarely concern the cause. They are targeted at the person supporting it, whose sincerity seems compromised by the ease of their allegiance.
The unprecedented rise - and fall - of the Kony2012 campaign has spurred a new debate around whether slacktivism is a viable construct. The video seemed to embody the slacktivist ethos: viewers oblivious to a complex foreign conflict are made heroic by watching a video, buying a bracelet, hanging a poster. Advocates of Invisible Children's campaign protested that their desire to catch Kony was sincere, their emotional response to the film genuine - and that the sheer volume of supporters calling for the capture of Joseph Kony constituted a meaningful shift in human rights advocacy.
I am sceptical that the world's newfound interest in Joseph Kony negates critiques of the campaign's worth - if success in advocacy is measured by how much a controversial video makes someone famous, then Ray J is a great humanitarian. If anything, Kony2012 showed that fame, the film's suggested palliative to political apathy, can harm a cause as much as it helps it. Invisible Children founder Jason Russell's nervous breakdown, recorded on a cell phone camera in San Diego, has been viewed over 1.5 million times.
Media fanfare over the arrest of Russell moved attention away from the Kony video and onto its creator. Yet the controversy raised important questions about how causes are joined, how campaigns are covered, and how sincerity is evaluated in the digital age. Both those who attack and defend slacktivism tend to build their case on quantitative metrics. Critics sneered at the hordes of teenagers who suddenly called for the capture of an African warlord, noting that Kony had been ignored by the Western public for well over a decade. Defenders of Kony2012 justified its significance by evoking its interactive scale - what Zeynep Tufekci calls "networked symbolic action", a profession of solidarity made meaningful through digital replication.
What the conversation on slacktivism is missing is the voice of the slacktivist. Their self-defence is often dismissed as irrelevant - who would confess to lazily clicking "like"? But slacktivism is not a "useless and harmful" way of describing online behaviour, as Tufekci has argued. Slacktivism is a real thing - it is one of the varied and often contradictory ways we engage with political material online. The same people who are slacktivists toward one cause can also be staunch and sincere advocates of others. The same people who engage in low-stakes, pointless actions - changing their profile picture to a cartoon to protect child abuse, turning their Twitter green to save Iran - could have a passionate commitment to the cause in question, but no knowledge of how else to participate.
Slacktivism, often used as a pejorative code word for digital activism, is not a philosophy - it is a process, varying not only within the cause but within the supporter. This became clear in recent weeks as the attention to Kony2012 began to fade - and attention to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, a cause equally shaped by social media, grew.
Different faces of slacktivism
Imagine that your son goes out to buy candy, is shot dead by a stranger on the street, after which not only is his killer not arrested, but your son is defamed and his killer defended, even applauded. That is the nightmare that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin have been living with since February 26, when seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Florida. One could say it is any parent's nightmare, but this could not happen to just any parent. Martin's death shows the cruel reality of raising a black son in America, the way a family's loss is not grieved but further punished.
On March 8, Fulton and Martin started a petition on Change.org calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who had admitted to killing Trayvon. In the slacktivist canon, the online petition ranks high. One is required to use one's real name, but the gravest risk one faces is the subsequent deluge of spam from organisations urging you to sign on to yet another cause - a process so rote and random that it breeds the very "slacktivism" activist leaders deride. In contrast, the Trayvon Martin petition was initiated by the primary stakeholders in the case. It was a simple plea for a pragmatic course of action, from the people who had been hurt the most.
As of April 1, the petition has accrued over two million signatures, the largest in Change.org's history. That means that within the last month, we have witnessed the most viral video and the most viral petition of all time - both advocating justice for young black men who were victims of violence. Yet the coverage of the campaigns, and their respective supporters, has differed greatly. Unlike Kony2012, which twisted a narrative to give an unfamiliar story emotional resonance, the Martin case discomfited by virtue of its familiarity, exposing racial injustice in stark and straightforward terms. While a central critique of the Kony2012 "slacktivists" was that they did not understand the conflict they condemned, few have claimed that supporters of the Martin family are unaware of racial inequality in America. The case highlights the fine line between awareness of and acquiescence to a humbling truth.
As the weeks went on, the two cases began to share a few uncomfortable similarities, mainly in the professions of solidarity from parties removed from the root of the conflict: white faces in hoodies blithely claiming "I am Trayvon Martin", Americans donning Kony apparel as Ugandans shuddered. Much as Kony2012 inspired impressive writing on African conflict, advocacy, and intervention, the Martin case has prompted serious reflection on race in America. The difference is that, in the case of Kony2012, "slacktivism" itself was the problem. The deluge of articles came as a corrective to a simplistic tale made meaningful by so many people believing it. In the case of Trayvon Martin, the cause prompted the conversation - because it is not only a cause but a symptom; a symptom of systematic injustice that Americans are confronting through, and in part because of, social media.
The similar use of social media and differing perception of the sincerity of support in the two cases prompts the question of whether it is the choice of cause, and not the method of media engagement, that gives slacktivism its ugly connotation. The most derided cases of slacktivism are grand, vague and messianic - "Save the Children of Africa", one of the first popular Facebook campaigns, is an early example; Kony2012 is perhaps its more sophisticated heir. In contrast, Trayvon's family's call for Zimmerman's arrest is direct, feasible and difficult to dismiss as a lure to attract publicity to those who promote it. We are less likely to ascribe slacktivism to campaigns led by the very people they are intended to help - even if we have no way of knowing the intentions of their followers.
The complex political and social issues surrounding the Trayvon Martin case - or, for that matter, the case of Joseph Kony - will not be remedied through social media. But both cases serve as a reminder that it is hard to dismiss or define slacktivism when the motivations that drive one to support a cause are subjective - feelings of sympathy and empathy, awareness and understanding, curiosity and coercion, that the quantitative analysis of clicks cannot discern.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis who studies politics and digital media.
Follow her on Twitter: @SarahKendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.