Arm­chair ac­tivists are chang­ing the world

CityPress - - News -

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

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