“It’s Better to Light a Candle Than to Fantasize About a Sun”: Social Media, Political Participation and Slacktivism in Britain

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines how routine social media use shapes political participation in Britain. Since the turn of the century, many commentators have argued that political activism has been compromised by “slacktivism,” a pejorative term that refers to supposedly inauthentic, low-threshold forms of political engagement online, such as signing an e-petition or “liking” a Facebook page. In contrast, this thesis establishes a new theoretical approach—the continuum of participation model—which illuminates what happens before political action occurs. This is explored in three interrelated contexts, using three different research methods: an ethnography of the political movement, 38 Degrees; an analysis of a corpus of individually-completed self-reflective media engagement diaries; and a series of laboratory experiments that were designed to replicate environments in which slacktivism is said to occur.

I argue that Facebook and Twitter create new opportunities for cognitive engagement, discursive participation, and political mobilisation. 38 Degrees uses social media to support engagement repertoires that blend online and offline tactics. This organisational management of digital micro-activism provides participatory shortcuts, enabling large numbers of grassroots members to shape campaign strategy. But, in contrast to both advocates and critics of online participation, I find no evidence of a widespread, one-size-fits-all, self-expressive logic. Instead, I argue that we ought to think in terms of a typology of citizen roles in social media environments. Civic instigators and contributors engage in digital micro-activism by way of refining their political identity. Listeners use social media to consume political information but refrain from public forms of expression and instead take to private spaces for political discussion. When listeners do act it is not effortless, but carefully considered. Experiments show that these roles derive from pre-established personal preferences, rather than the stylistic presentation of information or visible indicators of the popularity of an information source. Overall, this study argues that slacktivism is inadequate and flawed as means of capturing the essence of contemporary political action. Social networking sites offer an important space for democratic engagement in the milieu of everyday life.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Chadwick, Andrew, Supervisor
  • O'Loughlin, Ben, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jan 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • social media and politics
  • slacktivism
  • political participation
  • citizenship
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • digital media
  • activism

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