Kony 2012: The Fallacy of Slacktivism: Kony 2012 and Disruptive Activism

Kony 2012: The Fallacy of Slacktivism: Kony 2012 and Disruptive Activism

[Jay Milbrandt is the Director of the Global Justice Program at Pepperdine University School of Law.  Jay is the author of the recent book Go and Do: Daring to Change the World One Story at a TimeYou can connect with Jay on his blog or on Twitter @JayMilbrandt]

I was the target market for Kony 2012.  I’m a connected, engaged Millennial.  I watched Invisible Children’s first movie when it came out.  I’ve met the filmmakers.  I’ve even been to Invisible Children’s office in Northern Uganda.

I was traveling abroad and not as active online when Kony 2012 went viral.  Had I been at home, I would have hit “Like” and I would have re-Tweeted it, just as I have with other campaigns.  Much of the world would have condemned my online share as “slacktivism”—a quick and easy way to feel like I made a difference.

I’ve never been interested in activism—I’ve never protested anything and I’ve never started a petition.  Except one time.  I got free on-stage tickets to U2 if I would ask concertgoers to sign petitions advocating for the release of Aung Sung Suu Kyi in Burma.  Wearing a “Burma” t-shirt and employing a clipboard, to the public, that day I was an activist.

It begs the question, in today’s world, when does one cross the threshold to “activist”?

The Threat of the Slacktivist

The term “Slacktivism” was co-opted by traditional activists who felt threatened by modern technology.  Suddenly, the effect of showing up to a physical location with t-shirts and signs for a rally could be orchestrated—and surpassed—by young people at home on their laptops.  It’s simply another case of disruptive technology.  In the same way, 1920’s radio was criticized by newspapers and musicians who felt threatened that they would become obsolete.  Eventually, newspapers realized that gathering news by radio expanded their sources and musicians realized that radio grew their audience.  The technology they originally demonized only strengthened them.

The reality of social media is that your Facebook profile can be a determining factor in finding jobs, getting dates, or championing any personal cause.  For each of us, our online personality is an extension of our offline physical self.  And, like it or not, the way we hold ourselves out online is often more relevant than the physical self because anyone, anywhere, at anytime, can access us.

Then, what is the different between making a public display for a cause online and a public display for a cause at a U2 concert?  Nothing.  My activism at the concert likely reached a couple hundred people—the ones who signed my petition.  My activism online can immediately reach thousands, with boundless potential.  The physical act of traveling to the concert was insignificant.

We must eliminate “slacktivism” from our lexicon.  Kony 2012 finally brought the issue to critical mass: The Internet is a disruptive technology to the traditional practice of activism.   Like any movement, there is a continuum with lower and higher forms of practice—from hitting a “Like” button to making a film to putting one’s life in harm’s way.  By negatively connoting “slacktivism” as a lazy attempt activism, we are only hurting causes in which we might ultimately believe.

The Impact on International Law

What does “slacktivism” and Kony 2012 mean for international law?  It means we become less relevant unless we embrace so-called “slacktivism.”  We need to change the way we do international law in order to keep up with current conversations and be in the places where they begin.

Right now, I am finalizing the placement of a legal article in international law journals.  In the article, I argue that acts that happened in Burma over the past decade amount to genocide.  All I can hope to do with my article is raise the profile of the issue and begin discussions on the topic.  The old model was to write the article and let it find a place in academia.  But the numbers don’t lie.  I receive many, many more views and downloads by sharing my ideas through Facebook and Twitter—a groundswell of interest and support that a purely academic audience can’t match.

International law needs to embrace social media.  Kony 2012 should only inspire and encourage us—international law got the attention of the world.  Kony 2012 accomplished what we all wish our ideas could do.  So, I’ll continue to write and post online—there may even be day when I no longer submit articles to physical journals and a day when the number of “Likes” and “Retweets” count for more than citations.  If that makes me a “slacktivist,” then so be it—I hope someone finds your article in the stacks.

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Africa, International Criminal Law
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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Benjamin G. Davis and Keefe Snyder, Online Influence Space(s) and Digital Influence Waves: In Honor of Charly, 25 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 201 (2010)

This should help in thinking this throug.  Francesco Alberoni’s Movement and Institution (1984) brings to bear both the movement and the reaction of institutions to the movement which fall into four categories (1) repression in bloodshed, (2) falling into illusion (3) institutionalization and (4) marginalization.  Slacktivism is merely the marginalization aspect – consequence of the intersection of the movement and the resistance of the institutions trying to be changed.


Bryan Wildes
Bryan Wildes

   It’s true that academic journals fail to bring a broad readership into the fold.  In almost every discipline there appears to be an inaccessible dialogue that could have significant efficacy if brought into the mainstream.  Despite this systemic problem with higher education, it seems that your conclusions on effective distribution of ideas fail to address the heart of what slacktavism is implying.   I have not seen Kony 2012, but I’m not sure if my viewing of this short film would have a direct line of causation to the acquisition of Joseph Kony.  In short, knowledge does not always compel action.  I would assume that is the main charge against slacktavists.  Me liking an article about the Arab Spring did not end injustice, it was the uprising of marginalized peoples.  In the case of the Arab Spring social media played a significant role, there is no doubt, but I have no delusion of my role in those events.    As far as, burning words from our lexicon is concerned, It might be more effective to burn the sentiment behind the word, but is that something worth while?  Should we limit the vocabulary of criticism where it is deserved, or even… Read more »