Shining Stars: a paper by Josh Cohen (student of Gayle Stever)

Shining Stars:

A Grounded Theory Study Examining Celebrity Slacktivism

Josh Cohen

Empire State College


Social media has become in recent years the touchstone of communication in every genre of life.  Information travels instantly all over the world as people engage in personal and business communication on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.  Moreover, social media has transformed all areas of activism, allowing individuals more freedom than ever before to express opinions, build consensus, raise funds and mobilize fellow-advocates for a variety of causes.  The explanation for this metamorphosis can be traced back to the technology itself.  Media Ecology Theory asserts that how people communicate shapes the message and its reception (West & Turner, 2010) Thus, the use of social media has given birth to a new wave of activism referred to as slacktivism.

Slacktivism represents a departure from traditional activism methods in favor of a less-involved effort (Morozov, 2009).  The term was coined in a 1995 seminar conducted by Fred Clark to positively denote how young people can influence the world in small actions (Christensen, 2011).  Today the merits of slacktivism are in contention.  This is demonstrated by the use of the label itself which is used disparagingly by critics while those in support of the phenomenon use the tag as a compliment.  Conventional activists advocate activities such as picketing while slacktivists prefer to “like” or “favorite” a post on Facebook or Twitter.

From the perspective of Media Ecology Theory, the slacktivist emerged out of the wave of transformation initiated by the Internet and social media.  Specifically, these technologies have given rise to the free agent influencer (FAI).  The FAI is an individual who uses social media to advocate for various causes.  Traditional activism necessitated followers to join an organization such as the NAAPC or the Sierra Club.  These organizations served as the voice of their members: organizing and rallying the collective whole, lobbying politicians, enlisting new members, and raising funds. The radical shift in media technology now allows individuals to freely advocate for issues that mean a great deal to them without the need for an organization to be an intermediary.  These organizations still have a place in activism but their role has changed significantly because of social media.

Critics of slacktivism direct several accusations against the practice to demonstrate how from their perspective it is inferior to conventional activism.  Journalist, author, and speaker Malcom Gladwell has been an outspoken detractor of slacktivism and compared the emerging phenomenon with traditional activism in a 2010 article for the New Yorker magazine.  Gladwell’s (2010) fundamental assertion was that slacktivism cannot be considered as potent as conventional activism and thus will never be responsible for any major social campaign.  Moreover, he states that the watershed accomplishments of traditional activism such as those observed in the past century in the fight for civil rights for African Americans will never be realized by slacktivist methods.

According to Gladwell (2010), there are two main differences between traditional activism and the wave of slacktivism moving throughout social media.  First, the two approaches are distinctive in the “ideological fervor” that underpins behavior (p. 3).  Traditional activism requires conspicuous courage.  For example, four African-American college students visited a restricted Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960.  After being denied service the students remained at the counter for several hours and eventually left.  This act of defiance drew media attention that further fueling massive campaign.  The protests began to grow and in subsequent days more and more students and community members joined the initial students at the lunch counter.  Opposition to this protest also emerged and a maelstrom of activism from both sides ensued.  Gladwell’s assertion was that slacktivists do not display the same passion and courage since their protests are largely conducted in the virtual world.

The second argument Gladwell (2010) espouses characterizes slacktivism as inferior to traditional activism because online activists are connected to each other and a particular cause only through “weak ties” while traditional activists coalesce around “strong ties” (pp. 3-4).  Since the connection between internet activists is usually only virtual, the commitment evidenced by this group is more likely to be minimal.  However, contact between traditional activists is usually personal and conspicuous.  For example, friends, family, roommates, and coworkers have a real, versus virtual, relationship with fellow activists.

In addition to Gladwell’s criticisms of slacktivism there are several other accusations directed against the practice to demonstrate how it is inferior to conventional activism.  The first charge against slacktivism is that it is nothing more than an ostentatious display of one’s belief that requires little effort.  This certainly may be true of some slacktivists.  However, this could also be used to describe traditional activists who attach bumper stickers to their vehicles and wear t-shirts supportive of their cause.  The point remains that in all activism there are levels of engagement; slacktivism is no different.

A second charge made against internet activism is that the underlying motive of slacktivists is to simply feel good by “liking” or “favoriting” a socially conscious message.  This brand of engagement is viewed as tangential to activism by traditionalists.  Thus, slacktivism is classified as pretentious by its critics because they do not see its motives as legitimate.  Moreover, critics charge slacktivists with attempting to construct an online persona that reflects interest in various causes simply to portray oneself in a favorable light.  From this perspective slacktivists are characterized as masqueraders using a charity or cause to bolster their online reputation (Skoric, 2012).  Again, these detractors fail to concede that underlying motives in activism in general can be self-serving.  They see only that slacktivism embodies this characteristic.

A third accusation leveled against slacktivism is that it involves little to no financial or personal risk (Skoric, 2012).  Advocates of traditional activism cite that social media relationships are based on fragile connections and therefore would never be as forceful as its conventional counterpart (Gladwell, 2010).  These connections allow slackivists to venture out into cyberspace ensconced in their social media persona and thus not be identified and become open to ridicule.  With seemingly little at stake social media activists are characterized as cowards by their critics (Skoric, 2012).  However, this is a limited view that does not consider how a social media strategy can support an actual protest, such as a march.


Celebrity Slacktivists

Celebrities capture the attention and imagination of society and thus provide a platform for expressing values and ideals.  The public is not forced to uncover details about celebrities’ lives and values.  Rather, these elements are put on display by tabloid media offering the curious public perspective into the lives of actors, musicians, athletes, and media stars (West, 2008).  Therefore, in the realm of activism celebrities can act as lightning rods, attracting the public’s attention for a particular cause.  The value of this exposure has led to the increased use of celebrity endorsements in all categories of activism.  For example, one of the most widely publicized campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” advertisement which was first broadcasted in 1991 and still continues to be a popular method of marketing the PETA message (Shorter, 2012, p.13).  In these provocative ads, celebrities, who have most recently included Pink, Olivia Munn, and Eva Mendes, appear nude in efforts to raise awareness of the brutality involved in the fur industry and thereby curb the demand for the product.

Despite the popularity of national campaigns involving traditional activist organizations such as PETA, a new flood of celebrity activism has emerged involving social media.  Some celebrities have embraced the social media slacktivist ideal and have become significant catalysts for activism.  Working alone or with traditional non-profit organizations, celebrities are choosing to become active internet do-gooders who transmit their passion to serve humanity through slacktivism.  Moreover, through tweeting their support these socially conscious celebrities can add their voice and reputation to a variety of purposes without needing to have the backing of an organization.


The Purpose of this Study

The purpose of this grounded theory study is to describe the engagement of celebrity slackivists with followers on Twitter to ascertain whether or not slacktivism activities are comparable to traditional activism.  At this stage in the research, activism will be generally defined as the activities consisting of: coalescing around a message, ideal, or individual, fundraising, sharing information, enlisting supporters, and organizing events.



This study will employ a grounded theory approach to uncover any imitation of traditional activism in celebrity slacktivism.  Twitter profiles will be examined within the time frame of thirty days: March 8, to April 8, 2016.  Popular reoccurring hashtags will serve as foundational categories.  Additional open and axial coding will be applied to discover if slacktivism is similar to traditional activism.  As the categories are explored and codes designated, working hypotheses will be constructed.


Study Subjects

Twitter will be the sole social media platform this study will investigate.  This study will examine the Twitter feeds of three self-proclaimed celebrity activists; these include: musician Raffi Coavoukian, actress Sophia Bush, and actor Mark Ruffalo.  Each celebrity identifies themselves as an activist on their Twitter homepages.  Activism categories include politics, environmentalism, women’s rights, and child advocacy.  The subjects’ Twitter feeds were monitored for one month.



Using the website the content of each Twitter subject was examined for the thirty day test period. listed the most used hashtags which served as the first basic categories.  From there, coding was done to pare down the original categories and arrive at main categories.  Additional coding showed a link between several traditional activist functions and the celebrity slacktivists.  The functions included: coalescing around a person, message or ideal, sharing information, enlisting new supporters, and fundraising.



The first function of traditional activism is that it tends to coalesce around a message or ideal.  The data shows that slacktivist celebrities embody that function as well.  An examination of the hashtags of the celebrities involved in the study reveals that each celebrity has several messages or ideals that saturate their communication on Twitter.


Raffi Coavoukian @Raffi_RC

Elect Bernie Sanders for president Climate change reality A new democracy British Columbia politics


Sophia Bush @SophiaBush

Chicago PD TV show Popular Culture Women’s Rights The Girl Project My True Beauty Campaign



Mark Ruffalo @MarkRuffalo

Flint, MI water crisis Elect Bernie Sanders for president Environmentalism


Several observations were made concerning these messages and ideals.  First, a slacktivist celebrity on Twitter is not bound to one particular cause.  Each celebrity has several messages or ideals that are expressed in his or her hashtags.  Political activism, women’s rights, environmentalism and climate change all appear in the data.  The celebrity can endorse and educate on a variety of issues that are appealing.  Second, Twitter allows celebrities to react to current events that are urgent and develop fluidly.  For example, @MarkRuffalo attached the hashtag #flint ten times during the 30 day study period responding to the Flint, Michigan water crisis which began to permeate the public consciousness in January 2016.

Lastly, the analysis of the celebrity hashtags regarding messages and ideals reveals that celebrities can work in concert with traditional activist organizations for more efficient communication of mutually held beliefs.  For example, @Raffi_RC not only endorses Bernie Sanders for president but believes in a new expression of democracy for the United States which he feels is consistent with the Sanders campaign.  Thus, hashtags such as #feelthebern and #waveofdemocracy although different in specific verbiage share a common message: vote for Bernie Sanders because he understands the demand for a new democracy in America.  @Raffi_RC becomes a mouthpiece for the Sanders campaign and the socialist message espoused by so many Sanders supporters.  This amalgamation efficiently communicates both messages together through a popular, affable spokesperson.

The second function of traditional activism is to educate the public in all information relating to a purpose.  This is extremely important because education is the gateway to action.  In this area celebrity slacktivism significantly outpaces conventional activism for several reasons.  First, celebrity activism concentrates on the celebrity and not just an issue.  Therefore, it is more likely to gain the attention of the public than the issue itself.  For example, while it would be impossible to ascertain how many of @MarkRuffalo’s almost two and half million Twitter followers follow him because of his celebrity, what is certain is that he has a large platform from which to educate his followers.  On Monday, March 14, 2006 @MarkRuffalo tweeted:

@BernieSanders is the only Pres candidate who opposes #FRACKING.  Check out his FRACK-less #ActOnClimate platform.

This tweet included a link to an article Sanders’ published about climate change.  Thus, @MarkRuffalo combined two areas of activism, political and environmental, which he felt passionately about and used one tweet to educate the public, i.e. his followers, about both.    The second reason why celebrity slacktivism exceeds its traditional counterpart in education is that it has a wider scope.  For example, the instruction concerning #FRACKING, #ActOnClimate, and @BernieSanders did not stop with only @MarkRuffalo’s followers but extended to all who received the tweet in their own Twitter timeline as a retweet.  In fact, through retweeting, the information had a potential reach of at least 192,450 people through Twitter alone (, April 16, 2016).  Could the public find this information through traditional activism?  Yes.  However, conventional organizations and methods would simply not interest everyone, even those interested in climate change.  In addition, the para-social relationship between @MarkRuffalo and his fans provides an additional connection that naturally incites and maintains interest.  @MarkRuffalo’s fans are inherently interested in what he is interested in.  Traditional activism, devoid of celebrity slacktivists, finds it more difficult to keep the public focused on an issue.

A final reason why celebrity slacktivism is superior in educating the public is that the technology of social media permits anyone to act as an authority on an issue.  Celebrities often provide links to news articles, blog posts, and other social media platforms that convey the information of authentic experts in various fields.  This reflects back on the celebrity who becomes a de facto authority to followers by virtue of the information provided in the link.  The reason why this is superior to conventional activism is that traditionally the public had to seek out experts and become conversant in his or her area of study.  These experts, scientists, activists, politicians, and specialists in a variety of fields, are often closed off from the public and may only inhabit certain narrow sectors of life.  Thus, the celebrity removes the veil and introduces expert testimony in areas such as environmentalism, climate change, women’s rights, and events that occur in real time.  For example, @SophiaBush who recently became a “twillionaire”, acquired a million Twitter followers, offered a tweet on March 31, 2016: “The most important thing I’ve done this week is to watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk.”  Included in the tweet was a link to which displayed Stevenson’s, a human rights lawyer, presentation on racial injustice which had gathered almost three million views on that platform alone (, April 16, 2016).  The reaction from those who commented on the tweet was a mixture of thanks for sharing the information and admiration for @SopahiaBush.  Moreover, the tweet had a potential reach of 169,665 through followers retweeting the information to their followers.  Although @SophiaBush is not an expert in human rights law she shared powerful information provided by an expert to educate her followers in the subject.  Traditional activism using conventional media would be severely limited in trying to imitate this kind of slacktivist education.

A third function of traditional activism is to enlist supporters to take part in a cause.  This had been accomplished conventionally through such activities as canvasing communities and soliciting petitions or holding recruitment meetings on college campuses.  However, celebrity slacktivists perform the same practice without the costs and time associated with traditional activism.  For example, on Primary day in Wisconsin, April 5, 2016 @Raffi_RC tweeted:

TODAY #WisconsinPrimary be a democracy hero: VOTE! #VoteTogether take a friend!!  #WaveOfDemocracy #FeelTheBernTODAY #WisconsinPrimary be a democracy hero: VOTE! #VoteTogether take a friend!! #WaveOfDemocracy #FeelTheBern

Although it would be impossible to tell how many people were affected by the tweet it did have a potential reach through retweeting by followers of 37,551 (Twitonomy April 16, 2016).  Traditional political activism has no comparison to this kind of scope and influence.  In another example, @MarkRuffalo tweeted on March 17, 2016:

PETITION: Tell Gov. Snyder and #MiLeg to put families first in their #FlintWaterCrisis response!

The tweet also contained a link to a website in which people could sign an online petition that demanded justice for the families of Flint.  The petition was signed by 4,855 people and was ahead of the Congressional hearing on March 17th in which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder would provide a state budget that included allocated funds to remediate the Flint water crisis.  The number of signers is admittedly low.  However, @MarkRuffalo’s did not appear until the day of the hearing.  Nevertheless, the tweet had a potential reach of 176,284 taking into account the retweets of followers.  The discrepancy between the potential reach of Ruffalo’s Tweet versus the actual number of petition signers supports Gladwell’s scathing rebuke of slacktivism in which he excoriates the activity for being verbose but ill-effective at motivating action.  Notwithstanding, slacktivists are gaining momentum in this area.  Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign is a good example.  In a Politico article retweeted by Raffi_RC on April 11, 2016, Sander’s campaign was featured for being at the forefront of slacktivist culture.

But Sanders’ team has – honing a strategy of turning “slacktivists” who don’t normally engage in grass-roots politics into an advance team capable of doing everything from managing phone banks to planning high-level campaign events.  As of early April, his tens of thousands of network volunteers had made 47 million phone calls, putting them on track to surpass the calls made by Obama’s operation during the entire 2012 election cycle (Scola, 2016, April 11).

What the Sanders campaign has discovered is how to turn slacktivists into a new hybrid activist that operates in both the virtual and physical worlds.  What is needed to realize this metamorphosis in a greater way is time to develop more strategies in reaching groups of young digital natives with powerful messages that touch their lives.  .@BernieSanders is the only Pres candidate who opposes #FRACKING. Check out his FRACK-less #ActOnClimate platform.

A final function of traditional activism is fundraising.  This activity is central to everything else an activist or an organization does because without proper funds to finance a campaign activism efforts will severely suffer.  Slacktivist fundraising is superior to traditional fundraising in two distinct ways.  First, the technology of social media minimizes the expenditures needed for fundraising.  In fact, a social media fundraising campaign can be conducted without the need for any capital.

Secondly, celebrity slacktivists can engage in fundraising on social media without soliciting any.@BernieSanders is the only Pres candidate who opposes #FRACKING. Check out his FRACK-less #ActOnClimate platform. money.  @SophiaBush launched a campaign on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016, to raise $100,000 for the charity The Girl Project.  The Girl Project provides school supplies, mentorship, education, and scholarships to young women around the world. Twitter and Instagram followers of @SophiaBush were encouraged to tweet out #MyTrueBeauty and the beauty products company Eco Tools would contribute one dollar for every hashtag until the count reached the goal.  @SophiaBush included the #MyTrueBeauty six times in the thirty-day study range which translated to a potential reach of 691,251 ( April 16, 2016).

This campaign was the second @SophiaBush held of this type.  However, the previous campaign conducted a year prior solicited the followers to purchase a brush from Eco Tools to secure the one dollar donation (Knight, 2016, March 10).  This transformational strategy marks an important shift in the dynamics of fundraising.  Individuals now have the ability to financially support causes they are passionate about without actually making a donation.  Moreover, more companies like Eco Tools are discovering the usefulness of such campaigns for marketing.  Not only are they less expensive and more effective than traditional marketing, they are also becoming more invested in the social media “doing good” movement.  This type of fundraising may never completely replace traditional avenues of donating.  However, it is becoming increasingly popular and will be an important fundraising strategy for many organizations and causes, especially those that have little capital to invest in fundraising campaigns.



Gladwell’s (2010) disparaging view of slacktivism is somewhat accurate but fundamentally shortsighted.  As the data has shown, celebrity slacktivists perform many of the same functions that traditional activists have historically served.  Slacktivists coalesce around an ideal, message, or person, educate people about a cause, enlist new supporters, and raise funds.  Moreover, the technology fueling slacktivism makes many of those functions more efficient and effective than ever before.

Although Gladwell (2010) adroitly identifies slacktivism’s primary shortcoming, limited involvement required, he fails to point out several mitigating factors.  First, the minimal engagement that slacktivism demands is its strongest advantage since it makes activism much more appealing and accessible to a wider audience.  Secondly, slacktivism is still in its adolescent period meaning that it will continue to evolve.  As it does, the passion behind the activism will manifest in a multitude of ways.  Judging slacktivism to be inferior before the phenomenon has matured simply restricts the effectiveness of individuals and organizations to reach others with a socially conscious message.   Lastly, it must be understood that a changeable level of engagement always exists in all forms of activism.  Thus, slacktivism should not be singled out as a pretentious activity but a meaningful gateway to other forms of involvement.  It is best to look at activism engagement on a continuum with no engagement on one end and high engagement on the other.  People move back and forth over that continuum as they are persuaded to get involved in causes with which they have an interest.

The primary controversy between traditional activism and slacktivism is an “either or” argument.  However, both sides are beginning to see the value of the other.  Thus, the way forward is to invalidate the “either or” argument with the understanding that traditional activism and slacktivism can and should be employed together to accomplish much more than either could achieve on its own.  Celebrity slacktivists are leading the way by displaying how internet activism and conventional non-profits can partner together to spark change.  Indeed, non-profit charities are enlisting more and more celebrities for single campaigns or to become the face of a particular cause (Dominguez & Herrero, 2013).  Moreover, the practice will only become more widespread since celebrities are effective communicators, influencers, and fundraisers.

Moreover, celebrities who engage in activism through social media amplify their message and impact through their popularity and persona.  The passion of celebrities such as Sophia Bush, Raffi Coavoukian, and Mark Ruffalo contribute to the perception that such celebrities are experts in whatever area of activism they attach themselves to.  Thus, celebrities become de facto authorities to their fans and followers.

Furthermore, celebrities also provide a point of connection between followers and social causes.  By interacting with followers through social media platforms such as Twitter celebrities create the impression of working together with followers for a cause. In addition, celebrities often work with or create their own charitable organization which followers can interface with to have an even broader impact.  For example, Mark Ruffalo is associated with Water Defense, a non-profit organization that works to promote the availability of clean water for everyone while making those who pollute water sources accountable.

Additionally, celebrities inspire followers to get involved at varying levels of engagement.  Some simply retweet a celebrity’s words or news articles the celebrity posts.  Others sign petitions or donate money to a cause.  Although critics may discount slacktivist engagement, everyone must begin somewhere and celebrity slacktivists help followers cross the line and slacktivate, or become an active participant in a movement.


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