Stop Picking on Social Media Activists, They Make a Difference!

Slacktivism is not so bad afterall! A US study shows that people who express their political stand through social media by changing profile pictures and other ‘armchair’ activities play a critical role in the modern social movements. It was found that social media activists, or slacktivists, as they are disparagingly referred to, can double the reach of a movement and help gain international traction.

The study, which was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, analysed tens of millions of tweets surrounding recent protests in different countries including Gezi Park portests in Turkey, the Indignados movement in Spain and the Occupy movements.

The use of social media to support a protest or cause is often criticised and it’s argued that slacktivits don’t help to spur change. But now researchers find that in fact, these peripheral users serve to double the reach of the core protesters’ message.

In the protest networks, a small minority at the core is echoed by a ‘critical periphery’ of social media users. These two components together are necessary to achieve viral exposure.

The paper says that “The debate often arises when the daring minority of highly committed protesters is compared with the less heroic majority of followers who may risk relatively little, posting messages comfortably from a distance.”

According to the researchers, the criticism “fails to acknowledge the complex forces that are at play in the current media environment, including the synergies that both core and peripheral participants create in the process of starting and scaling up visibility of the protest movement.”

Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, The Annenberg School for Communication

They point out that Twitter played a major role in organizing the Arab Springs protests, and could be an essential instrument in the modern age.

The research was led by Professor Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon of the Annenberg School for Communication and Pablo Barbera from New York University. Using location data embedded in the tweets to determine who was at the protest and who was observing online, the researchers looked at how the size of the online activist’s social networks increased the likelihood of other people joining the physical protest.