Identity and Online Advocacy

From slacktivism to activism: exploring the increase of youth participation in online social movements through Twitter.


The emergence of social media platforms has changed the way that young people advocate for a social cause. Slacktivism is the new phenomenon that has revolutionised the world of online activism by empowering young people to participate in social movements from the comfort of their homes. Often critised as the ‘laziest form of activism’, this paper will challenge the popular discourses surrounding this new form of online activism by exploring its effectiveness in increasing the level of youth participation in social movements through Twitter. By exploring the cases of the Black Lives Matter movement, the plastic straw debates and the Me Too movement, I will look at how slacktivism is creating an unprecedented opportunity for young people to change traditional activism and adapting it to their generation.

Keywords: online activism, Twitter, communities, teens, slacktivists

Over the past years, the success of any social movement has been measured by the number of retweets and likes that such cause may generate (Lane & Dal Cin, 2018). Social media has emerged as a popular online platform where retweeting tweets is the new form of advocating for a social movement. Often referred to by the pejorative term of ‘slacktivism,’ any users partaking in online activism, particularly on social media are criticised as being too lazy to leave their screens to participate in ‘real’ activities that translate into effective change such as protests and boycotts (Lane & Dal Cin, 2018). It can be linked to the popular discourse of portraying “Millennials and the Generation Z as being self-centered and morally lazy” (Lane & Dal Cin, 2018, p. 1524). The Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement are prime examples of slacktivism at its best, generating millions of dollars in online donations and the mobilisation of millions of young people in protests with the power of only one tweet. There is an increase of youth participation in activism through slacktivism due to social media platforms such as Twitter offering unprecedented opportunities for young people to join social movements through its low barrier of participation, socio-technical features and weak ties. Despite the various discourses surrounding this new form of activism, the burden of proof is way too high to condemn slacktivism as an ineffective form of online activism.

Do slacktivists hurt traditional activism?

Slacktivism, a combination between the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’ is a term used to describe the “low-cost, low-risk participation in a social cause whereby individuals confine their outrage to the computer screen” (Smith & al., 2019, p. 183). Often critised as not being “real activism” due to the minimal effort required to change a profile picture into a black square to support the Black Lives Matter movement and not actually protesting in the streets to make a real change, slacktivists are perceived as hurting traditional activism. These discourses are present even after the prominent impact of hashtags in movements such as the #BlackOutTuesday where thousands of individuals shared their support for the Black Lives Matter movement through retweets on their accounts (Ince & al., 2017). Do those actions really make a change? Did the act of sharing #BlackOutTuesday on a Twitter account really make a difference? The power of slacktivism lies in the “large number of users who engage with the causes online” (Mundt & al., 2018, p. 2). Therefore, the network effect created by just one retweet has the potential of reaching millions of young activists online and translating into online donations. Through its network effect, slacktivism encourages diverse communities to collaborate and match their online actions to concrete on-ground actions. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement gained more than $10 million through online donations and encouraged millions of young people from diverse communities to join on-ground protests. On the same line of thought, Mundt & al. (2018) argues that those engaged in typical forms of slacktivism have more power in empowering ‘would-be’ protesters than traditional activists (p.2). Therefore, the slacktivists who are perceived as the ‘core periphery’ of social movements are instrumental as through their casual tweeting, they are responsible for doubling the reach and mobilising millions of young users to join the cause (Mundt & al., 2018, p. 2). The role of slacktivists is crucial to the success of a social movement as it has the potential to reach more people than traditional activism, therefore they should not be regarded as mere lazy activists.

Twitter as an information hub

The distinctive structure of Twitter facilitates social movements to become viral which as a result translates into an increase in user engagement. Twitter is one of the most popular social networking platforms with 290 million monthly users and young people between the age of 13-24 accounting for 33% of these users (Edrington and Lee, 2018). The distinctive format of Twitter facilitates the dissemination of information through its two key features: the tweets and the use of hashtags. As compared to other social networking sites, Twitter is the only platform with a 140-character limits that enable users to write brief tweets. Therefore, this word limit makes the format easier to be understood and to be shared which as a result increases its potential for becoming viral (Edrington and Lee, 2018). Attention is a crucial resource needed for the success of a social movement; therefore, this feature is favourable for brief and impactful posts that have can empower millions of young users to join a social movement. As mentioned above, popular discourses argue that tweets cannot translate into effective on-ground changes, however the case of the plastic straw movement, particularly made viral by young people through their tweets proves otherwise. This online social movement gained millions of retweets and translated into laws being implemented worldwide to ban the plastic straws in countries such as in Canada and the United Kingdom (Smith & al., 2019). Consequently, the attention economy leads to virality which offers a favourable environment for online and offline actions to coexist and overlap. Therefore, these popular discourses surrounding slacktivism as not translating into effective actions are deemed to be false as proved by this online social movement made popular by slacktivists who through the power of their tweets were able to apply pressure on the governmental policies about straws worldwide. The other key feature of Twitter which is the hashtags has revolutionised the way that young people advocate, gaining so much prominence that it created a new category of online activism on its own coined the hashtag activism (Ince & al., 2017). Through the use of only one hashtag, slacktivists are able to make their voices heard about a specific social movement and informing millions of their followers about a cause. The plastic straw movement is a prime example of the power of one hashtag having the potential to inform millions of young users in one click. Through #SaveTheTurtles, users were able to be exposed to an array of information through the indexing format of hashtags which grouped particular information on the cause together in a category which facilitated the distribution of information to a vast network. Therefore, Twitter plays a central role in the dissemination of information which is directly linked to the propensity of user participation.

The power of retweets

The low threshold nature of slacktivism empowers more ‘would-be’ activists to participate in social movements. The main criticism surrounding slacktivism is that it requires minimal effort that will not translate into effective on-ground actions. Ironically, it is the “low-cost, low-risk participation nature of slacktivism” (Smith & al., 2019, p. 183) that empowers more young people to join social movements as compared to traditional activism which contains various barriers to participation such as a certain level of expertise is needed to join a protest. With slacktivism, anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account can participate in any social movement of their interest without the need to protest in the streets to show their support (Smith & al., 2019). With only a retweet, a young person is able to join a cause that he is passionate about regardless of his disabilities or of geographical boundaries, and which has the potential of quickly spreading to reach millions of other users with a minimal number of resources and expertise. Therefore, Twitter acts as a “virtual gateway” (Smith & al., 2019, p. 185) for those who cannot participate in the protest but who want to support the social movement. Twitter acts as a third space for young people as it helps online and offline communities to collaborate through a decentralised structure. Young people view this type of activism as a safe space without the traditional organisational structure and therefore lower barriers to participation which empowers more people to join the causes. Smith and al. (2018) argue that slacktivist actions such as retweeting a post about a social movement is considered as the “laziest form of activism” (p. 184) as it will not lead to on-ground meaningful changes. However, one tweet may not translate into any effective actions, but thousands of retweets can “disseminate beliefs” (Smith & al., 2019, p. 183) that will. The most successful example of using tweets as a catalyst for meaningful actions is the case of the Black Lives Matter movement. It started as a hashtag where a critical amount of youth participated in retweeting and sharing the hashtags, and which was responsible for mobilising millions of young people to join the cause. This movement was not powerful because of its physical closeness but by its “ability of mobilising on its social media force” (Edrington and Lee, 2018, p. 290). Therefore, through their small contributions slacktivists are creating aggregated ones. They may not participate to protests due to geographical boundaries or due to disabilities, however their small actions combined together have the power to bring meaningful changes to a cause.

Twitter and weak ties

The socio-technical features of Twitter allow young people to create a coherent network globally through the use of weak ties. Twitter is a social networking site that emphasises on weak ties to build relationships through a diverse network of users (Mundt & al., 2018, p. 2). A tie refers to the connection between people within a network. Weak ties are often perceived as a “non-essential element of the social network” (Valenzuela & al., 2018) as they require minimal engagement and intimacy as compared to strong ties. However, Valenzuela and al. (2018) argue that young people with few weak ties are “deprived of information from distant parts of the social system” (p. 121) and are limited to views of their close friends as their only source of information. However, the socio-technical features of Twitter are designed to connect like-minded young people from diverging group of friends together through their common interests. Therefore, this platform exploits the power of acquaintances as Twitter prioritises “followers” as compared to “friends” to create relationship between users, therefore broadening the connections between strangers with similar interests and creating new communities. The decentralised structure of Twitter facilitates the creation of “large and sustainable interpersonal networks” (Mundt & al., 2018, p. 2) that do not need the support of formal organisations to function as compared to traditional activism which is dependent on this hierarchical structure. Any user can create its own hashtag and empower its network of followers to join its cause by retweeting a tweet or by signing an e-petition. This decentralised structure of online activism has empowered a rise in youth-led movements who were previously excluded from political and social movements. For example, the #ENDSARS Nigerian movement is a youth-led digital movement against the “rampant police brutality in the country” (BBC, 2020). Twitter was used as a crucial tool for mass mobilisation of young protesters to support the cause through simple slacktivist activities such as retweeting or liking the posts. As a result, the movement gained more than 28 million of retweets in one weekend and mobilised thousands of Nigerians to voice out their opinions and protest in the country (BBC, 2020). Therefore, social media has changed the way that young people advocate by decentralising the protests and the donations which are now led by young people and not by formal organisations anymore as they are not essential in the digital age for the success of a social movement.


Slacktivism has revolutionised the way that young people participate in social movement. The casual tweets of one young person have the power of reaching millions of like-minded users to join a social cause. Although slacktivists are regarded as lazy users who only provide minimal efforts in causes, even the smallest contribution counts and has the potential to translate into aggregated ones. Through its low standards of participation, unengaged young people feel more empowered to take a first step into more levels of engagement, therefore increasing the number of participants willing to join a cause. Furthermore, the decentralised structure of Twitter offers an incentive for young people to create their own movement without the need of formal organisations which often excludes them as real activists who can bring a change. Therefore, slacktivism is essential for the success of a social movement and should not be considered as a mere tool for lazy activists. There is a crucial need to put an end to the stereotypical standard of who is a ‘real activist’ or not.

Reference list

BBC News. (2020). How the End Sars protests have changed Nigeria forever.

Edrington, C. L., & Lee, N. (2018). Tweeting a social movement: Black Lives Matter and its use of Twitter to share information, build community, and promote action. The Journal of Public Interest Communications, 2(2), 289-289.

Ince, J., Rojas, F., & Davis, C. A. (2017). The social media response to Black Lives Matter: How Twitter users interact with Black Lives Matter through hashtag use. Ethnic and racial studies, 40(11), 1814-1830. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2017.1334931

Lane, D. S., & Dal Cin, S. (2017). Sharing beyond Slacktivism: the effect of socially observable prosocial media sharing on subsequent offline helping behavior. Information, Communication & Society, 21(11), 1523-154. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1340496

Lee, M., Kim, H., & Kim, O. (2015). Why do people retweet a tweet?: Altruistic, egoistic, and reciprocity motivations for retweeting. Psychologia, 58(4), 189-201. DOI: 10.2117/psysoc.2015.189

Mundt, M., Ross, K., & Burnett, C. M. (2018). Scaling social movements through social media: The case of Black Lives Matter. Social Media+ Society, 4(4), DOI: doi/10.1177/2056305118807911

Smith, B. G., Krishna, A., & Al-Sinan, R. (2019). Beyond slacktivism: Examining the entanglement between social media engagement, empowerment, and participation in activism. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 13(3), 182-196. DOI: 10.1080/1553118X.2019.1621870

Valenzuela, S., Correa, T., & Gil de Zuniga, H. (2018). Ties, likes, and tweets: Using strong and weak ties to explain differences in protest participation across Facebook and Twitter use. Political communication, 35(1), 117-134. DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2017.1334726

18 thoughts on “From slacktivism to activism: exploring the increase of youth participation in online social movements through Twitter.

  1. Hi Norine,
    I found your article very insightful and it gives one much to think about, especially during times where we cannot be as active as we would like to be. Social media platforms are the most crucial ways through which we can contribute to raising awareness, shedding light on issues, as well as participating in causes we believe in.

    1. Hi Karine! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read my paper! I’m glad that you enjoyed my conference paper. I totally agree with you, due to the Covid-19 pandemic we are not as active in protests as we would want to and online activism really helps to still contribute in social movements. Social media platforms are often disregarded as an effective way to advocate for causes however, they are indeed crucial for the success of movements as they are responsible for raising awareness and mobilising millions of would-be activists.
      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Hi Marie,

    Astounding paper! I admit I had a bit of a dismissive opinion of just sharing a tweet or profile picture, but perhaps I was focused more on the narrow, micro level of a single person doing it isn’t representative of the extent of the movement, that others are doing the same in different spaces that has a snowball effect.

    A question I have is how slacktivists can keep the ball rolling when their movements they promote start to lose momentum and aren’t in the public eye. While Black Lives Matter has been successful in constantly keeping in the public space (though perhaps unfortunately due to police brutality and racial injustice being far more prevalent than people would be comfortable to admit, what about movements like #March4Justice in Australia where I believe it’s gradually being eroded by the next “big thing” and what I feel is a news climate that does not want the perpetrators (people of the Liberal Government) being under any negative spotlight due to political bias?

    Hope it’s not too out of scope, but thanks for this eye-opening paper.



    1. Hi Andrew! Thank you for reading my paper!
      I totally agree with you, we can see that the BLM movement has been successful in increasing its momentum recently, unfortunately, due to a number of other police shootings of black civilians. Seeing Derek Chauvin both charged and convicted shows that slacktivism has a real impact on justice, especially if you compare it to just a few years earlier when the officer who killed Michael Brown was not charged by a grand jury.

      To answer your question, as compared to traditional activism where the moment that a movement is not in the mainstream media it becomes obsolete and does not have visibility anymore, online activism is more effective at keeping the conversations going. Even if a movement is starting to lose momentum online, conversations will still continue around the cause. With just with the power of one tweet anyone can spark the conversation and make a movement be in the public eye again. Traditional activism is dependent on third parties such as news outlets to maintain the momentum of the social movements. However, the decentralised structure of online activism allows anyone to promote a cause that peaked their interest, even those who have lost public interest and the attention of mainstream media. Furthermore, this aspect of virality on social media platforms allows social movements to still be relevant even as they stop being in the public eye. Therefore, slacktivists are able to promote social movements through simple actions that can lead to aggregated ones such as through their tweets as the socio-technical features of online platforms enable more visibility even after the loss of momentum of a movement.

      While I do agree with you about the fact that the current news climate is deliberately dismissing some social movements by moving on to the ‘next big thing’ due to political biases, online activism’s power lies in its decentralised structure that allows individuals to continue the conversations that the mainstream media is trying to dismiss. While mainstream media might be influenced by political biases and therefore might not talk about some movements, online activism will make sure to shed some light on these causes specifically. It only takes one individual to talk about an underlying issue for it to become viral and to mobilise thousands of slacktivists online. Furthermore, the #March4Justice movement in Australia was not in fact dismissed by the next big thing, it is still a social movement that is being massively talked about on social media platforms and by news outlets. Recently, on the 15th of March, thousands of protesters marched for this cause which then sparked the conversation about this movement again. Here are some articles talking about this:

      I hope that I answered your question. Thank you for contributing to the discussion!

  3. Hello Norine,
    I really enjoyed reading your paper.
    Whatever you wrote on social media is absolutely true as everything is connected, especially as we are all using smartphones we get to react on tweets and other social media platforms easily and quickly.
    Great work Norine!


    1. Hi Tooshtee! Thank you for taking the time to read my paper. I’m really glad that you enjoyed it!

  4. Hello Norine,
    I really enjoyed reading your paper. Thank you for your piece of work. To note what you have mentioned in your paper about social media as a popular platform. It is indeed true that with social media nowadays we can easily communicate as in Twitter people tweets are a new form of advocating a social movement. With a smartphone one can connect to their social media platform even though the person has disable problems but has the potential to reach a million of people in the platform itself. However, I did not know about the team “Slacktivism” but you explained it really well in your paper.

    It would be great if you could read my paper and share your point of view.
    Here is the link;

    1. Hi Tiloshna!
      Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read my paper! I’m really glad that you enjoyed this paper as it is a topic that really fascinates me. The effectiveness of social media activism has often been disregarded despite its massive success in mobilising millions of people and raising awareness for causes. I totally agree with you, Twitter facilitates social movements and has emerged as a new platform for advocacy. Did you ever take part in slacktivism yourself?

      Looking forward to hearing back from you soon! I will definitely check out your paper and share my point of view!

  5. Hi Marie!

    I really enjoyed reading your paper. I’ve come across the term ‘slacktivism’ before but you’ve really explained it well in your essay and provided examples that were very interesting to read.
    Slacktivism is not something that is discussed enough in regards to social media. Before reading your essay, I myself, thought that people who did the bare minimum in terms of activism and promoting a cause were not doing much and not much could come about it. However, after reading your essay I totally agree with the fact that even though the contribution made is minimal, the effect it has goes a long way, and therefore, even the little things matter.

    I’ve written a paper in regards to Twitter as well and would love for you to check it out and let me know what you think 🙂

    1. Hi Saranya!
      Thank you for reading my conference paper, I really appreciate it! I 100% agree with you on falling into the trap of thinking that ‘Slacktivism’ is only about doing the bare minimum. I’m glad that you enjoyed the read. I will definitely check out your paper and give you my thoughts on it.

  6. Hi Norine,
    Your paper was very interesting and I got to know new team such as “Slacktivism”. As you explain it activism online has become something very present on social media.

    That being said I have a question , as you said it Slacktivism become the new way to be engaged only digitally. Do you think that in 30 years “real activism” will disappear to let place to only Slacktivism?

    Also it would be great if you could have a look to my paper and give me your views about it !

    here is my link :

    Hope to hear from you soon. Good job!

    1. Hi Megan! Thank you for reading my paper! To answer your question, I don’t think that “real activism” will disappear in the long run. Despite the massive success of online activism in raising awareness and mobilising millions of users to join social causes, it is a complementary tool to offline action. Online activism do facilitate causes greatly however, only retweeting about the Black Lives Matter movement will not amount to the success of the movements without real-life actions. Twitter is used as the introductory method to encourage people to engage in offline actions such as reaching out to elected officials to make changes. Online activism and real-life actions work hand in hand to get a greater impact. With digitalisation we do see that more and more the boundaries between offline and online activism are being blurred.
      I will definitely read your paper! Thank you for your comment!

  7. Hi Norine!
    Thank you for this piece of writing. You presented your arguments very well into different sections which made it clearer to understand.

    However, I would like to point out something since you mentioned e-petitions; it is very crucial to note that Twitter was not designed with politics in mind. Individuals should adhere to Twitter’s privacy policy before registering and they have the authority to withdraw any activity they consider offensive. This may result in many activisms on the platform being suppressed in preference of the capitalist interest. Therefore, if the e-petitions are well-written and presented, they will notify authorities of the fact that the public supports a particular activity online.

    On the contrary, some of the appeals are either poorly interpreted and regulated, or intentional scams. Therefore, if the e-petitions are not transmitted or framed in an approving manner, then these activisms are merely a mirage. Similarly, certain initiatives put in place for slacktivism support are simply money-making schemes.

    Therefore, my question is; while Twitter has given rise to activism, don’t you think that it can also have the tendency to fail and only reinforce armchair activists?

    1. Hi Noodhish! After researching a bit more on e-petitions and how Twitter’s privacy policies have an impact on them, I totally agree with your point of view. There are some cases where e-petitions were dismissed by the platform and therefore had a suppressing effect on the online social movements. However, despite the discourses surrounding e-petitions. its effectiveness should not be dismissed as merely money-making schemes. Prime examples of the effectiveness of e-petitions such as the #Metoo where millions of dollars were collected for causes that really mattered.

      To answer your question, I do think that online activism on Twitter can promote armchair activisms. However, it should not be dismissed as a failure because every action counts, even those of armchair activists. They are perceived as the ‘core periphery’ of social movements and are instrumental to the causes as through their casual tweeting, they are responsible for doubling the reach and mobilising millions of young users to join the cause. One tweet may not translate into any effective actions, but thousands of retweets can disseminate beliefs. These armchair activists might not do much except tweeting about a social cause but their actions have the power of raising a massive amount of awareness and reaching millions of people that will go out in the streets and protest.
      I hope that I have answered your question. Thank you for reading my paper!

  8. Hi Norine,

    I enjoyed your paper but i would like to know what happens to those “young people with few weak ties are “deprived of information from distant parts of the social system” because it would be interesting to know more about their life, the decision they make, the way their behaviour change, do they perform well socially etc.

    But Great paper enjoyed it!

    1. Hi Faneeshwar! To answer your question, young people with few weak ties are those who only engage with information being shared by people that they are close to such as their family members and their friends. They do perform well socially but they feel more at ease to connect with people that they know, therefore the way that they interact will be limited to this small group of people. Their behaviour online, the decisions that they make will be influenced by the the limited information that they have been exposed to through people that they already know, who form part of the same community as them and who have the same opinions as them. However, if they decided to gain more weak ties, they would be exposed to unique information shared by people that they do not know but share similar interests with and probably have new point of views from people belonging to different communities.

      Do you consider yourself as having many weak ties and did you consider its impact on your exposure with new information?
      Thanks for reading my paper! Looking forward to hearing from you!

  9. Hi Marie,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your paper, the themes and general argument are very similar to my own which you can find here:
    I really enjoyed reading about the term “slacktivism”, it is a term I definitely should have used in my paper as well. I think the topic of online activism is really important and something I have found to be overlooked in a lot of discussion around social media. Most of the articles I found initially spoke mainly of the negative effects, did you find it challenging to find papers to support your argument?
    I also enjoyed reading about the examples that you used, especially the plastic straw movement which started with the hashtag #SaveTheTurtles, its crazy how effective one hashtag can be in influencing social change.
    It is also interesting that your paper is mainly focused on Twitter, as mine is as well. I found most of the journal articles mainly referred to Twitter, although personally I have seen a lot of activism through Instagram. Where do you see it the most?

    Thanks again for the read, I look forward to hearing back from you.

    1. Hi Megan! I will make sure to read your paper as well because as you said social media activism is overlooked in a lot of discussion.

      To answer your first question, I did find some popular discourses against online activism, associating it with pejorative terms such as the ‘laziest kind of activism.’ However, social movements such as the Black Lives Matter which are prime examples of slacktivism at its best helped to counter those discourses surrounding online activism. Therefore, it was not difficult for me to find the supporting ideas to back up my arguments as these successful social movements birthed by online activism helped to challenge those negative views and made scholars interested in researching about the positive aspects of this new kind of activism. I found a lot of articles about slacktivism in particular and how its effectiveness is changing the way that people are advocating.

      To answer your second question, I do see a growing popularity of online activism through Instagram as well. Concerning the BLM movement I saw a massive number of online users posting about a black square to support the movement. However, I do believe that Twitter is and will still be the main platform for advocating for causes due to its particular socio-technical features making it easier for posts to become viral as compared to Instagram. For example, by showing the trending hashtags which makes it easier to find information which is not the case for Instagram.

      Thanks for the comment, looking forward to reading your paper!

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