Early in March 2012, the non-profit organization Invisible Children published a brief yet emotionally compelling documentary on YouTube titled “KONY 2012,” which attempted to raise awareness of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s use of child soldiers in his army.
The video received 100 million views in six days, according to the organization. The hashtag #stopkony was tweeted 1,200 times per minute at its peak, and fans of the Invisible Children Facebook page increased by 621 percent by the end of the year. Hordes of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media users shared the “KONY 2012” video, signed their support on an online pledge, or ordered the Kony 2012 bracelets.
But for many, the action stopped there. “KONY 2012,” one of the largest viral phenomenons in recent history, has become a prime example of what is known as slacktivism.
A combination of the words “slacker” and “activism,” slacktivism is characterized as an act that shows support for a cause or issue but doesn’t translate to real-world improvement. The simple act of liking a page on Facebook or signing an online pledge gives the user a sense of accomplishment and participation. In the end, however, there are few or no results.
As the age demographic with the most members active on social media sites (89 percent, according to the Pew Research Center) and the generation most attached to technology, millennials catch a significant amount of flak for participating in slacktivism. The stereotype suggests that otherwise apathetic millennials contribute purely on the surface, through Facebook likes and retweets on Twitter, in order to feel engaged without actually getting involved.
The simple act of liking a page on Facebook or signing an online pledge gives the user a sense of accomplishment and participation, but in the end there are few or no results.
Taking the Initiative
Although the popular notion is that stereotypes are rooted in some semblance of truth, millennials that are truly involved in social and political issues don’t see any validity in the perception about their generation. Mikael Pensec is a 27-year-old volunteer activist who has noticed through his own work that youth is not absent in activism.
“When I go into any activist group, if anything, it’s skewed toward there being more younger people than older people,” he says. “In any room you go to there’s going to be elders, people who have been doing it for decades, but more often than not people are younger.”
Pensec has done the bulk of his activism in immigrant rights work through the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAc). He has volunteered with the organization since 2009.
Born in France, Pensec moved to the United States with his family when he was three years old. He lived in California and Iowa before coming to Minnesota at age 12. Pensec attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and it was through his roommate there that he found MIRAc and became a volunteer activist.
As a dual citizen of France and the United States, Pensec had no trouble aligning with the cause of immigrant rights. “It’s easy for me to understand being in the shoes of someone else who has come to another country,” he says.
Pensec campaigns and helps organize fundraisers for MIRAc and also attempts to work through legislation for the fair treatment of immigrants in the United States. Even though he does his share of work toward the improvement of social issues, Pensec understands how millennials could be perceived as slacktivists.
“People are grabbed by something, and if they’re really dedicated to it then they’ll stay involved in it. But if they’re not really dedicated to it, if that doesn’t grab them in a specific way, then it’s on to the next thing,” he says.
Technology has certainly contributed to this by making a massive amount of new information and media available at our fingertips every day. In today’s world, one is almost forced to jump from one thing to the next on a regular basis.
A Student’s Stand
However, as much as this effect of technology and media may fragment the movement behind a cause, the ability to instantly reach a great number of people should not be written off or forgotten. Kate Dobson is a board member and co-chair for the University of Minnesota chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), and she appreciates media and technology as a tool for efficient communication.
“I think it’s easy for people to see Facebook and Twitter communication as inconsequential, but I think it’s a gateway to more activism,” she says.
Dobson, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota, has been working with MPIRG since her freshman year. Although she is a full-time student and works a separate job, she still devotes around 20 hours a week to the group.
MPIRG targets a variety of issues and typically has four to five task forces working at a time. Currently, those task forces are focused on sustainability and environmental issues, economic justice for students and the middle class, public health, and gender and sexuality initiatives.
From the board of the organization down to each chapter located at various universities around Minnesota, MPIRG is entirely student run. The ability of college students to make a difference in the world around them through their own means is part of what appeals to Dobson.
“The idea that any student can bring an issue to MPIRG and we can work on it and have success in it is so beautiful to me,” she says. “Seeing young people counteract the stereotype of apathy is a really cool thing.”
“Seeing the empowerment of young people that counteracts the stereotype of apathy is a really cool thing.”
No Challenge Too Small
Pensec is supportive of anyone being able to come forward and bring light to a problem or cause, regardless of its size or scope. He says while larger issues take more time and effort to fix, all it takes is a few people who are dedicated to something to make small steps toward progress. He advocates this approach as opposed to having a “let’s change the world” attitude, which can be daunting.
“Every insurmountable challenge is made up of a lot of little challenges and those things are easy to get over,” he says. “Each one of those you get over is making things better.”
Pensec encountered this type of challenge when Minnesota was editing its budget in 2011. The state decided to make cuts to a program called Emergency Medical Assistance, which were to take effect at the beginning of 2012. The program provided noncitizen immigrants with forms of emergency medical treatments if the individual was not otherwise eligible for health care. This included providing treatments like dialysis, chemotherapy, and hospice care. Because of the cuts that were to be made to the program, 2,300 people received a letter in November 2011 from the Minnesota Department of Health Services notifying them that their coverage would not continue at the outset of the next year.
Appeals against the changes to Emergency Medical Assistance came both from those who were affected by the cuts in the program and from advocacy groups like MIRAc. Pensec was part of an MIRAc group that raised awareness and garnered support for legislation that would reverse the changes. On March 27, 2012, the Minnesota Department of Human Services agreed to continue providing Emergency Medical Assistance services including dialysis and cancer treatments to enrollees in the program.
On a global or even national scale, the preservation of Emergency Medical Assistance services was a small victory. It wasn’t a big news item and it never hit the Internet as a viral sensation. Yet it was a lifesaving piece of activism. Cultural events like “KONY 2012” are highly visible in the public eye, while the work of millennials like Pensec and Dobson is not.
Perhaps it’s not that millennials as a generation are apathetic, but that those who think so just aren’t looking close enough.
“Because social media is so public it’s easy to say that’s all students do,” Dobson says. “But if people look deeper, they’ll find a myriad of issues that students are passionate about.” ν