Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Slacktivism: What Instagram Activism Does, Doesn’t Do

This article was published in the Review Opinions section on Nov. 10, 2023 under the headline: “Slacktivism: What Instagram Activism Does, Doesn’t Do.” It states that “news sources retracted headlines [suggesting that the Israeli military was responsible for the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital explosion on Oct. 17], eventually agreeing that a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible, and apologized for acting on insufficient evidence.” It is correct to say that many news organizations adjusted their initial coverage of the incident after United States intelligence backed Israel’s claim that the explosion was the result of a malfunctioned rocket fired by an armed Palestinian group. However, there was no ultimate agreement reached among news organizations concerning the cause of the explosion, and further analysis has called into question key evidence cited by Israeli intelligence, leaving the source of the explosion unclear. 

The article additionally states that, “recent evidence suggests a misfired rocket was destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system in the immediate vicinity of the hospital.” While there has been speculation about the role of the Iron Dome in intercepting the rocket, recent evidence regarding this claim is inconclusive. 

The Oberlin Review’s intention is to report the news factually and in good faith. We apologize for any harm caused by the inaccurate characterization of events cited in this article.

The digital attention economy conditions us to expect rapid change and gratification. We can unfollow or block a person, effectively removing them from our lives within seconds. We can open Instagram or TikTok and receive an instant dopamine high. When I open Instagram, I am looking to be instantly entertained. As I begrudgingly scroll past T-Mobile and NBC Peacock ads to see what my friends are up to, I also wade through an endless sea of content about the Israel–Hamas war. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, I tapped through every single Instagram story on my feed to see just how much content there was about the Israel–Hamas war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza within a 24-hour time frame. Out of 165 users who posted that day, 41 had posted content about the war, with a total of 93 individual story posts. But what does this content actually accomplish? Are there real world implications from our actions on Instagram, or any other online media platform? 

University of Pennsylvania professor Jonah Berger, author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On, found that the leading factors that play into people posting on social media were social currency, emotion, and practical value. A similar Times survey conducted in 2018 found that boosting one’s self-image is the biggest reason people post and interact with online users. One survey participant said, “I try to share only information that will reinforce the image I’d like to present: thoughtful, reasoned, kind, interested, and passionate about certain things.” Social media is yet another vehicle for people to buy and sell their own personas and egos. Digital commodification is a topic for another day, but it’s important to keep in mind when thinking about why people post; I could write an entirely different article on how late-stage capitalism eclipses and tends to diminish interest in true civic engagement. 

Activism and civic engagement as a whole exist on a spectrum, and individuals’ levels of engagement will always differ. Some may have the time, money, and ability to join a protest or donate to an aid organization. Others may only be willing or able to perform the simplest action of liking an Instagram post. 

Many would characterize the latter side of this spectrum as “slacktivism,” a term coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 which refers to the act of supporting a political cause or movement with very minimal effort or personal resources. I’ve never been a fan of the term, and 28 years later, “slacktivism” has seemed to become a means of further dividing the political left between “real” and “fake” activists. In addition to the never-ending online discourse around political movements and crises themselves there is further discourse around how we ought to talk about these movements and take action on social media platforms. 

This division makes online platforms incredibly volatile spaces, mostly thanks to our short online attention spans and the ability to speak our minds behind the safety of our screens. People, for the most part, don’t take the time to really think before posting something. Instagram is designed to keep you entertained and engaged. That comes at the cost of being accurately informed on an issue or able to have productive discussions. 

The online fallout after the Oct. 17 Al-Ahli Arab Hospital explosion in Gaza City is a prime example of social media’s unparalleled potential to spread misinformation and create animosity. Initial world headlines suggested that the Israeli military was responsible for the explosion, which was deemed to be an intentional airstrike. For a day or so posts circulated and blame was traded. Not long after, news sources retracted these headlines, eventually agreeing that a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible, and apologized for acting on insufficient evidence. Online arguments continued to unfold. 

Ultimately, war is incredibly difficult to accurately report on. As of now we don’t really know who’s to blame, although recent evidence suggests a misfired rocket was destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system in the immediate vicinity of the hospital. Most importantly, the more filters a piece of news goes through the more blurred it becomes, and the news we consume online is incredibly filtered. 

During the immediate days following the explosion, I noticed Instagram users using these conflicting headlines to further their own arguments and — going back to the concept of social currency — bolster their self-image and stance on the conflict as a whole. 

So we know why people post online, and we know what happens when you mix that with heavy, emotionally-tolling issues that many people have physical ties to, the Israel-Hamas war being the current example. But who benefits from this online anger, volatility, and misinformation? It’s not the people of the United States — anti-Arab and antisemitic acts of hate and violence are incredibly high right now, and we are more divided on the Israel —

Palestine conflict than ever before. The Gazans who desperately need clean water do not need an influencer’s infographic endlessly circulating, they need donations from all of us and aid from the United States government. The only people benefiting from what a recent Atlantic article aptly described as the “informational jungle” and “tangled vegetation” that has taken over social media platforms following the Oct. 7 massacre are those contributing to this “jungle.”  

I’m not saying not to post about the Israel–Palestine conflict. Social media is many people’s first experience with activism and a gateway to political awareness. Others rely on social media to know when protests are happening, or to discover organizations to donate to. What I am asking is for people to be more cognizant as to why they post something, what immediate effect that post has in an online space, and who may be actually benefiting from it.

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