Slacktivism for Paris

Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris have seen an outpouring of grief with many people changing their Facebook photo to blue, white, and red for Paris.

We get the opinions of two social media researchers Anita Breuer and Stephanie Vie about whether or not this has any significance or if it is an example of slacktivism – feel-good online activism that has zero social or political impact.

ResearchGate: What is your opinion on the large movement of people who have changed their Facebook photo to blue, white, and red for Paris? What does it mean?

Stephanie Vie: I am excited to see it, as well as some of the variants on this Internet meme that are currently going around (ones that reflect the flags of Libya and Kenya, as seen here). What I see is a number of Facebook friends who, even if temporarily, are showing outwardly visible support for a cause. This is a cause that responds to human tragedy and reminds us that we are all in this together, whether American, Parisian, Libyan, Kenyan ... we are all human beings trying to make it on this Earth, and seeing people band together and show visible support and concern for a cause is something that I think we should be encouraging, not dismissing.

Anita Breuer: I think it's an interesting phenomenon, though I wouldn't call it a "movement" or "social movement" because this would require some form of organization and a clearly defined goal or aim. In the absence of this I'd rather look at it as an expression of a widely shared sentiment of sadness or shock.

RG: What do you think attracts people to join the movement?

SV: For one, Facebook makes it easy to do – they offer a simple way to change your profile picture, suggesting you to "change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris." When a person logs in to Facebook and sees their friends' photos awash in a sea of blue, white, and red, and then they see a small button in Facebook that will allow them to change their picture, too, they may be likely to join the movement. Research has shown that if your friends vote and you're made aware of that via social media, you're then likely to vote too. So we can also see a connection between seeing your friends change their profile picture in Facebook and being compelled to change your photo, too.

AB: Besides the need to express their solidarity and create a feeling of "togetherness" in opposing a diffuse threat or crowd of enemies, I think what attracts people to change the color of their profile picture is the ease with which it can be done. You could think of it as a prefabricated condolence card that Facebook offers to its users or customers as a service.

RG: Is this an example of “slacktivism”? Why or why not?

SV: People like to throw around the critique of "slacktivism" when they see digital activism. If something appears too easy, too simple, we may dismiss it as just "slacktivism." But I prefer the term "digital activism." This is still activism, just in the online realm, and many people don't just stop with changing a profile picture (or posting an ice bucket video in response to the ALS challenge, or offering a hashtag in Twitter in support of a cause, etc.). There are apathetic people online and off, and you don't know whether the person posting a Facebook blue-white-and-red Paris profile meme is also donating to the French Red Cross or simply bandwagoning because their friends are doing it. But you also don't know if the person next door to you is donating, voting, or participating in other ways, either.

AB: All it takes to "join the movement" is to drag and drop a filter over your profile picture, i.e. it can be done in a couple of seconds and neither requires much effort or thinking. Since none of the transaction costs usually involved with political or social activism are involved, this is indeed a very good example of slacktivism.

RG: What do you think is the effect of this movement?

SV: The effect is solidarity. The effect is that people can visibly gauge support from others online. When I log in and see hundreds of my Facebook friends with blue-white-and-red Paris profile pictures, I see them as both individuals in that moment and as part of a larger group, a group that cares about a cause.

AB: I don't think that it will produce any concrete social outcome or change. However, it has an important function in terms of framing and interpreting the events. It creates a collective identity and a shared narrative of Europeans or Westerners standing united against the perceived threat that radical Islam poses to an open society. Of course this depends a lot on your perspective. Network studies have shown that there is a lot of social homophily (the tendency of individuals to associate with likeminded others) on online social networks. I.e., Republicans befriend Republicans, Democrats befriend Democrats and so on. This way, digital echo chambers are created in which users repeat and mutually reinforce their opinions. Which is why if you are a European Facebook user, right now you may be under the impression that an overwhelming majority of people worldwide collectively condemns the Paris attacks. But if you were a person that sympathizes with IS the picture might be a totally different one.

RG: What’s your personal take-away from Facebook’s French flag feature?

SV: I'm just glad to see online technologies being used to spread awareness and bring attention to worthy causes. In an attention economy such as we live in today, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the choices that are out there; it's also easy to be overwhelmed by all of the terrible things happening worldwide. But to see people banding together for a cause and caring for their fellow humans--I think that's something to celebrate, not mock.

AB: I think what is intriguing is the exclusivity of Facebook's offer here. Facebook has over 180 Mio users in the Middle East and Africa. 1,5 Mio of them in Lebanon where a similarly motivated attack claimed the lives of over 40 victims just one day prior to the Paris attacks. Yet Facebook did not offer users the possibility to change the colors of their profile picture to those of the Lebanese flag. Nor did Facebook offer such a "service" when 147 people lost their lives in the attacks in Kenya in April this year. So you could interpret Facebook's offer to change the colors of your profile picture to blue, white and red as a political statement or, put differently, as an attempt to actively engage in the social framing of a contemporary event.

This story was also featured on Inverse.