Facebook’s Rainbow Profile Pictures: The ‘Slacktivism’ Debate Rages On


Every time a symbolic online campaign goes viral, a new round of debate ensues over the value of so-called ‘slacktivism,’ and Facebook’s recent gay pride rainbow profile picture craze is no exception. Amidst the flood of think pieces that appeared in response to the rainbow images, two articles in the Washington Post caught my attention in particular. First, there’s Caitlin Dewey’s slice of digital optimism, in which she makes a case for why these symbolic actions may be subtly, yet meaningfully, persuasive. While reading this piece, I heard echoes of my own research on the 2013 red equal sign profile picture campaign, which posited that the peer-to-peer agenda-setting dynamics of these symbolic actions cannot be easily dismissed.  In Dewey’s article, UW professor (and professional colleague) Philip Howard offers the key pull-quote: “Openly declaring your support for gay marriage or dissatisfaction with modern policing [on social media] can create a brief moment where people who see the image have to think about the issue.” Dewey then follows: “And if they don’t have a clear opinion, or see that image many times, it could — potentially! gradually! — shift their social views.”

Indeed, this is precisely the sort of logic that was invoked by a number of interviewees in my red equal sign study, and while the extent of such proposed effects is still very much an open question, it’s nice to see these ideas being given serious consideration in the mainstream media. As I point out in my article, the ‘slacktivism’ discussion has become overly focused on how online symbolic actions may relate to other (typically offline) forms of political participation–either empowering people to do more by boosting their identification, or convincing them to do less because they feel like they’ve already done their part–and this ends up side-stepping the thorny question of viral political persuasion altogether. Personally, I don’t think there are any easy answers to this question, and I balk when my research is used to unequivocally ‘prove’ that symbolic online activism ‘works’ (as it was in this Christian Science Monitor opinion piece from 2013). However, I am pleased to see that the issue of peer persuasion is edging into the public conversation about online political expression, particularly since it has been brushed aside by so many critics (as well as many academics in my field, quite frankly).

Another piece in the Washington Post, an op-ed written by LGBT activist Peter Mosk0witz, has gotten considerably more attention and has seemingly risen to the top of the blogosphere heap. In the piece, Moskowitz repeats the typical ‘slacktivism’ critique that online actions become a weak substitute for ‘real’ activism, citing a 2014 study which found “that people who make these token displays of support often do it simply to boost their own public images without making any real sacrifice to benefit the cause.” This research report, subtitled “How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action,” is a prime example of what I’m talking about above. Once again, the focus is on how taking a symbolic action online will influence future political behaviors. While this line of research is not without value, it conveniently avoids the issue of what symbolic online action may be doing (or not doing) as its own distinct phenomenon. Even the use of the term “token support” here to describe this symbolic activity suggests that the researchers are unwilling to entertain the notion that it might have real-world consequences in and of itself.

On the other hand, Moskowitz offers a more convincing critique of the Facebook rainbow profile picture campaign when he brings up the issue of political self-segregation on social media, i.e. the fact that most people who post about their political viewpoints are likely to have online connections that already agree with them, and that those who don’t agree with their views are likely to simply block them. This issue of digital ‘information cocoons,’ in the words of Cass Sunstein, is crucially important to explore moving forward. Facebook itself famously tried to mitigate these polarization concerns earlier this year with an internal study purporting to show a diverse and cross-cutting political conversation on the platform, although it has since been raked over the coals as sloppy and self-serving research.

The most controversial and talked-about aspect of Moskovitz’s op-ed, however, is his argument that straight allies should not be waiving the rainbow flag on Facebook because they do not fully understand the LGBT struggle and its history. In his view, the campaign is a form of co-optation that weakens the movement and its symbols: “When millions of people cloak themselves in a symbol without understanding what it means, they dilute that symbol’s power.” Moskovitz’s argument has since been pilloried on the right as an example of victimhood culture run amok, and on the left as an example of how some activists turn away valuable allies over petty squabbles. I have my own reservations about the idea that political symbols should be reserved for some but not others. However, I do find Moskovitz’s discussion about the ’emptying’ of the rainbow symbol to be quite interesting, and I sympathize with his concern that political symbols are often circulated online as trendy memes without much thought about their meaning and history. A major theme of my ongoing work on viral politics is that we need to become more thoughtful and reflective about the symbolic political material that we choose to forward to others, precisely because these symbolic expressions can be consequential. While I disagree with his conclusion that the Facebook rainbow pictures are somehow obscuring the multiple struggles that the LGBT community still faces (in fact, I would argue the opposite), I believe that these kinds of serious conversations about the deeper meaning of viral political content are incredibly important to have.