The Millennial Slacktivism Debate: A Political Perspective

Editor's Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Emily Weiss is a junior at University of Maryland - College Park. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

There is no doubt that social media has transformed how people communicate with each other, how brands reach their consumers, and how citizens receive news and information. Amidst this revolution, there have been questions surrounding the ultimate value and benefits of taking political actions via social media. Out of this debate comes a new-age term: slacktivism.

Source: someecards.com

Source: someecards.com

Slacktivism—a portmanteau of slacker and activism—can be defined as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement.” This critique argues that changing a profile picture or retweeting an announcement are simply illusions of transformative and effective actions. In some communities, this pejorative term has given social networking sites a negative political value.

Proponents of slacktivism, however, lack an appreciation for the complex relationship between citizens, elected officials, governments and social media. They are looking at today’s political participation through dirty and antiquated lenses, instead of a different, perhaps, Millennial lense.

Source: Creative Commons 2.0

Source: Creative Commons 2.0

Millennials are not slackers: Their political activity goes far beyond a retweet or an emoji. Social media and social networking sites (SNS) have become mediums for digital engagement, and these sites are playing an exceedingly more prominent role in political engagement. 

Source: Pew Research Center (2013)

Source: Pew Research Center (2013)

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 study on Civic Engagement in the Digital Age suggests that political SNS users are not slacktivists, but rather more politically engaged both online and offline.

  • More than 39% of Americans now engage in political activity on social networking sites (SNS).
  • 63% of these political SNS users have recently gotten involved in a political activity or group, such as attending a political meeting or working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in their community. 
    • The national average for these activities is 48%.
  • 53% of political SNS users have expressed their opinion about a political or social issue through offline channels—for example, by sending a letter to a government official, or signing a paper petition.
    • The national average for these activities is 39%.

The Harvard Institute of Politics found a similar truth: In 2013, survey participants, especially Millennials, who were actively engaged on social networking sites had higher levels of political engagement and stronger partisan identity. 

In terms of voting behavior, the results suggest that social media use corresponds to higher rates of registration and voting turnout:

  • 73% of individuals with three or more social media accounts were registered to vote, compared to only 50% of individuals with no social media accounts.

Similarly, social media users also had lower failure to turnout rates:

  • Only 33% of those with three or more accounts did not vote in the 2012 election, compared to 42% of the individuals with no social media accounts who failed to vote.

These results invalidate the slacktivist critique: Social media is not a “one-stop shop” for political and societal involvement, but rather a medium for further online and offline actions. Even the Obama Administration sees the potential of digital engagement with their recent hiring of the first-ever Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman.

Slacktivism—as a form of digital citizenship—is a stepping stone for deeper and stronger ties to political involvement and participation. These Harvard and Pew Research Center studies reveal a legitimate connection between political participation and social media. We encourage more government institutions to value the ideas, feedback, and proposals generated by these digital tools to properly engage the most tech-savvy, educated, and diverse generation to date: The Millennials.

Emily Weiss is a MAP Communications Intern and a junior at the University of Maryland from Marietta, GA. She is majoring in American Studies with a focus in Public Affairs and a minor in Communications Rhetoric.  On campus, she is a Rawlings Undergraduate Leadership Fellow, the Executive Board Secretary for University Student Judiciary, a Presiding Officer of Student Honor Council and a representative on various advisory councils.


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