The paradox of online impact: slacktivism and cyberbullying

Over the past fortnight in Australia, across a range of media, we’ve been debating the ‘real world’ impact of two online social practices: ‘cyberbullying‘ and #destroythejoint.

For instance, Aussie starlet Charlotte Dawson hit back at online ‘trolls’ and received mainstream media praise for doing so, but then she was reportedly hospitalised after being targeted with a torrential backlash, and this was held up as a cautionary tale about social media:

The fact that Charlotte Dawson has been hospitalised after sustaining a particularly putrid and distressing wave of online abuse should force a serious discussion about our air-headed enthusiasm for social media. (David Penberthy, The Punch, 30 Aug 2012).

Around the same time, there was media publicity for new research arguing that ‘cyber’ bullies are psychologically different from ‘real world’ bullies.  Few participants in this discussion questioned the media construction of the problem of ‘cyberbullying’ and nobody seemed to doubt it has real world physical and psychological impacts.

Around the same time, talk radio mouth-for-hire Alan Jones singled out two women for on-air attack, saying “Women are destroying the joint – Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly.”  Nixon must be particularly powerful to be destroying the joint by simply existing peacefully in retirement and voluntary service.

His words were quickly taken up on Twitter as a hashtag for tweets cataloguing all the ways women are resisting patriarchy… including by just basically getting on with life, like Christine Nixon, amid attacks like this one from Alan Jones.  This impromptu, self-organising campaign has since spread around the world.


It was met today with a commentary piece by Clem Bastow, published today by Fairfax in print and online.  I adore Clem’s work, especially this frank and hilarious article about sexual health.  I don’t agree with much in this article, but that doesn’t change my view of her work.  What I’m interested in is the comparison she draws between cyberbullying and slacktivism.

Deceiving yourself about having an impact is clearly the implicit criticism in calling someone a slacktivist… and I think this highlights the paradox between the two parallel debates we’ve been having about the impact of online social practices:

Why would online discourse clearly have an impact when it’s hateful-critical, but have little or no impact when it’s activist-critical?

I think there are a couple of things going on here:

  • ever since the Industrial Revolution, the theme of social commentary has been worrying about the impact of new technology on the social fabric;
  • the Protestant strain in our  public culture leading us to believe that activism has to be deliberate, planned, purposeful, and above all, serious: joy and play are seen as self-indulgent.

Early this year, we saw Justin Shaw, editor of the Tribune, team up with Ben Pobjie from New Matilda, to deliberately troll feminists on Twitter:  “Are you ready for this big guy?” said Shaw, “They’re coming for our articles.”  I believe this was cooked up as a way of generating publicity for the print launch of the Tribune newspaper, and no doubt Alan Jones and Vile Kyle (and their managers) are thinking along similar lines: “good-y, free publicity!”  As the radio shock jocks show, trolling doesn’t only happen online.

In my post about the Tribune #hysteria saga, I used Habermas’ theory of ideal political communication to define the nature and problem with trolling.  Trolling isn’t just ‘people being mean’ — it’s engaging someone in heated discussion from a position about which you’re not serious, in order to make them spend their energy defending a position about which they are.

That’s why the wry humour of the #destroythejoint campaign is so brilliant. Instead of taking Jones seriously, the one sincere desire of any troll, it sends him up.

‘Here I am, spilling my cup of tea,’ it says, ‘destroying the joint again.’  It highlights his oversensitivity to the contribution of women to public life.  Its versatility makes it powerfully multivocal — the hashtag is a tool anyone can pick up and use, whether it be to highlight an injustice or celebrate an achievement or punctuate a critical remark.

I want to come back to the cyberbullying issue, though. What does the prefix cyber- achieve?

  • Is bullying really a new problem, when we’ve got powerful media figures like Alan Jones hurling abuse at Julia Gillard, Clover Moore, Christine Nixon, for no reason other than their gender?
  • How helpful is the ‘real/cyber’ dichotomy, when it functions to cordon off the public discussion of bullying to the online arena?
  • How meaningful is that dichotomy when mainstream media outlets publish simultaneously in print and online, and solicit discussion of their products via blogs, comment threads and on Twitter?
  • Or when cyber is real for students who have never known a playground without SMS or high school friendship without Facebook?

We need to get real about the impact of online activism. Far from being ‘slacktivism’, the #destroythejoint campaign suggests a model strategy for resisting and responding to trolling and anti-social behaviour on and offline.

Coming back to the ideas of joyfulness and play in activism, I’d like to conclude by quoting these observations made by Foucault in his foreword to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:

  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple: difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems.  Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.  It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force. (In Foucault by Gilles Deleuze, transl. Sean Hand, Continuum books).

Edit:  I added a link to this terrific post by actual anti-bullying practitioners who do question the cyber/real dichotomy.