September 15 to 21, 2014 is Canada’s Democracy Week, which “aims to connect Canadians with activities in communities across the country that celebrate our democratic values and traditions.” Democracy Week is especially focused on engaging youth in democratic activities. As part of Democracy Week, we look at young adult participation in both digital activism and in public demonstrations or protests.
The CIW’s Democratic Engagement Domain
Democracy depends on engaged citizens. Beyond voter turnout, democracy is sustained by political knowledge, feelings of trust in our political systems, and participation in the democratic process. These areas comprise the CIW’s Democratic Engagement domain.
Figure 1: Areas of Democratic Engagement
Unfortunately, between 2008 and 2010 there was almost no change in Canadians’ level of democratic engagement. Additionally, there are signs of a decrease in youth involvement in the democratic process, which could be troublesome for Canada’s democracy.
The CIW and other groups have suggested using technology as a way to increase democratic engagement, especially among youth and young adults. Technology use has inadvertently led to the development of slacktivism – a new and sometimes controversial style of digital activism.
Slacktivism, otherwise known as clicktivism, or armchair-activism is activism made easy. It’s the idea that the social media user is helping a cause by signing an online petition, tweeting a hashtag, or participating in advocacy groups through Facebook posts. The appeal of slacktivism is that it is fast and easy and makes us feel good by supporting a worthwhile cause.
Before the Arab Spring began in late 2010, there were concerns that slacktivism would lead to a decrease in participation in real-world activism such as protests. More recently, critics have argued that slacktivism is not effective and that the popular online campaigns that attract slacktivists are not always the most worthy causes. But there is a growing body of findings demonstrating that slacktivism can be effective.
Who’s a Slacktivist?
Are young adults slacktivists? In CIW’s Community Wellbeing Surveys, democratic engagement is partly measured by participation in nine democratic and civic activities during the past 12 months (Figure 2). Participation in a public demonstration or protest (direct activism), and joining a Facebook page on a local issue (slacktivism) are both elements of democratic engagement.
Figure 2: Democratic and Civic Engagement Activities
Using data from five CIW Community Wellbeing Surveys, we can see that in all communities young adults ages 18 to 34 join Facebook pages on local issues at higher rates than people who are older (see Figure 3). Participation in Facebook pages decreases with age.
Figure 3: Percentage of people who joined a Facebook page on a local issue in the past 12 months by age group
So young adults are slacktivists, at least more so than older people. But are young adults also activists?
Next we looked at participation in direct activism, specifically attendance at a public demonstration or protest. We compared participation in protests or demonstrations by age group in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Percentage of people who attended a protest or public demonstration in the past 12 months by age group.
Participation in protests or public demonstrations is much lower than slacktivism, and it varies by community and by age. In Guelph and Waterloo Region, young adults tend to participate in protests at a similar rate to those who are older, whereas in Kingston, Wood Buffalo, and Victoria young adults participate at a higher rate.
It appears that young adults are not only slacktivists but, depending on where they live, they are also activists.
Are slacktivists really activists?
But is joining a Facebook page related to attending a protest? Next, we examined how many of the slacktivists (people who joined a Facebook page on a local issue) also attended a public demonstration or protest (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Participation in a public protest or demonstration among people who joined a Facebook page on a local issue in the past 12 months by age group
We found that in all communities, slacktivists participated in protests or demonstrations at a higher rate than the general population.
In Victoria and Wood Buffalo young adult slacktivists participated in protests much more than older slacktivists. In other communities, there is less of a link between age and slacktivist participation in direct activism. Overall, these findings complement other research showing that people who engage in slacktivism are more likely to participate in a variety of political and civic activities.
Slacktivism is changing the “how-to’s” of activism and is engaging younger age groups. It also may be strengthening old-fashioned direct activism. Research from the Digital Activism Research Project found digital activism is most effective when:
- It uses multiple social media platforms;
- It is combined with direct activism; and,
- It is aimed at governments instead of a corporation.
Are you a slacktivist? Has online participation in political or social campaigns ever inspired you to attend a protest or demonstration? Tweet your thoughts @ciwnetwork or comment on our Facebook page.
 These measures tells us the number of activities that people are engaged in but not the intensity of their involvement. It is also possible that people who are longstanding members of a Facebook page on a local issue will not be counted if they joined the page more than 12 months prior to the survey.