Armchair activists are changing the world
Slacktivists – people who protest from the comfort of their armchairs by casually “liking” or retweeting political content online – have a bigger impact than many may think.
A new study by the University of Pennsylvania and New York University suggests that slacktivists, who may support causes online but not in real life – and are often derided as a result – play a crucial role in spreading the reach of protest movements.
The UK’s Independent newspaper reported that the researchers analysed more than 1 million tweets and their study, published in the journal PLOS One, focused on a few specific protests, including Turkey’s Gezi Park protests in 2013, the Indignados movement against austerity measures in Spain and the occupy movements.
Researchers used location data embedded in the tweets to establish who was at a protest and who was merely observing it online. They also looked at how the size of the online activists’ social networks increased the likelihood of other people joining a physical protest, the Independent reported.
The data showed that in most modern protests, a minority are physically active and protesting, but the much larger group – which researchers called “the critical periphery” – tweet about it once or twice only but double the protest’s reach.
Professor Sandra González-Bailón from the University of Pennsylvania said the armchair activists made the protest seem bigger and encouraged more people to participate.
“Of course, social media doesn’t push you to risk your life and take to the streets, but it helps the actions of those who take the risk to gain international visibility,” she said.
“If you want a protest to grow, you need that influential core, but you also need the periphery echoing them. Peripheral users ... are quintessential to understanding why products go viral or protests go big.”
– Staff reporter