They fill your inbox with viral videos, re-tweet the latest cause célèbre and preach to the digital masses on their Facebook status – but do so-called “slacktivists” actually accomplish anything?
The newly-minted term for folks who passively support causes on the Internet and through social media has been thrust into the lexicon since a California-based content and entertainment company released the viral video phenomenon “KONY 2012.” More than 100 million people viewed the video about a murderous Ugandan warlord, but critics were skeptical of the impact. Sending the link to everyone in your address book might have made you feel good, they said, but such lazy engagement falls far short of true activism.
"A slacktivist is someone unwilling to actually leave their computer to further the cause, so while they support the idea, they'll do the lowest common denominator to support it," Jason Stern, a New York-based Internet lawyer, told FoxNews.com.
Yet other observers say "slacktivism" can yield real results. Massive online support can influence policymakers, any kind of awareness beats ignorance and slacktivism might just be a gateway into making a difference, they say.
“It’s definitely another door to raise money or to raise awareness and activism,” said Sayo Martin, director of digital marketing for Take Part, a California-based content and entertainment company that works with nonprofits. “Just look at what happened with the Arab Spring. It was started through social media.”
A study from Georgetown University in November entitled “Dynamics of Cause Engagement” looked how Americans learned about and interacted with causes and other social issues, and discovered some surprising findings on Slacktivism.
"Slacktivists are not useless because by raising global awareness, they do contribute in a small way. But they are not activists."
- Jason Stern, an attorney specializing on internet and social media issues
While the traditional forms of activism like donating money or volunteering far outpaces slacktivism, those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their traditional counterparts to volunteer and participate in events. In other words, slacktivists often graduate to full-blown activism.
“It’s the easiest way for someone to be active,” said Martin, who believes the more accurate term is "clicktivism."
Not everyone can afford to donate to a cause, much less take on Japanese whaling ships or devote their lives to feeding the hungry in a third-world nation. But Stern said there is some justification for the derision heaped upon slacktivists.
"Slacktivists are not useless because by raising global awareness, they do contribute in a small way," Stern told FoxNews.com. "But they are not activists."
There is at least one program through which slacktivists can achieve tangible results. A web-based game called FreeRice, sponsored by the United Nations World Food Program, actually turns mouse clicks into food for the needy. Users take quizzes on various subjects and, for each correct answer, they earn ten grains of rice for those in need. The site relies on ads to pay for distribution of donated food.
“It’s been hugely successful for us. It accounts for about 9% of our site’s traffic,” Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman for the World Food Program, told FoxNews.com. She added that nearly 100 billion grains of rice--enough to feed two meals to five million people--has been distributed through the program.
“The fact that five million people could be fed through a game is amazing,” Luescher said. “I think the younger generation is looking to be involved and are searching for ways to give back.”
Still, the best way to make the world a better place is to get out and work at it, said Stern. Clicking, preaching and caring deeply from a sedentary position can only go so far.
"If I had to pinpoint it," Stern said. "I would say that slacktivism ends and activism begins when the fingers leave the Apple keyboard and the butt leaves the Herman Miller chair."
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych