One Young World’s Ella Robertson McKay Discusses the Epidemic of Slacktivism, Bridging Divides, and Disruption Gone Wrong


In an era where digital activism dominates the social media landscape, Ella Robertson McKay, One Young World’s managing director, offers a refreshing perspective on the state of modern advocacy, urging for a return to tangible actions amid the rising tide of slacktivism.

So what exactly is slacktivism? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the practice of conspicuously showing support for a cause (as by posting on social media or hanging a flag or sign) without taking any real steps to effect change.”

Robertson McKay calls it No. 1 on her list of the “three sins” of activism (with only working with like-minded people and egocentric acts of activism falling into second and third). Embodied by the superficial sharing of social issues on platforms like Instagram, slacktivism can create a false sense of accomplishment.

Even as well intentioned as they may be, the activism sins are creating “a real disconnect by the amount of activism we’re seeing on the streets and the actual outcomes we’re seeing in the halls of power.

“When you share the post on Instagram, you get a dopamine hit from the likes and comments. But, in reality, all you’ve done is put pixels out into the ether. You have not done anything,” Ella Robertson McKay explains.

“The average amount of time adults in the West spend on social media is two-and-a-half hours a day. What if people spent those two-and-a-half hours actually doingthe things that they’re posting about?”

Researchers of a 2022 McMaster Undergraduate Journal of Social Psychology study agree. They revealed that while many millennials were aware that online activism was the least effective road to implementing change, researchers found it was still the most commonly engaged form of activism, often motivated by social media users’ desire for social approval rather than creating lasting social change.

Want To Create Real Change IRL? Do This Instead, Says Ella Robertson McKay

A No. 2 no-no on Robertson McKay’s list of activism sins? It’s easy to ally and align with like-minded activists, but what about those with whom you completely disagree? Connect with them.

“Look at the people who you might not like. Who’s in power groups that are seemingly working against you? Those might be the people you really actually need to persuade in order to make a change. “You need to be reaching out to people who aren’t like you. Even if we disagree on many things, there will be areas where we agree we need to make progress.”

Once you’re in that room, proverbial or not, having a diverse set of people is key to moving mountains.

“I think that’s really important,” she states. “I think: Build community. Look around. Who is not in the room? Who could we invite into the room? And in terms of diversity and inclusion, I really believe that movements that aren’t inclusive of every race, gender, nationality, disability, and religion will not be strong movements.”

Activists Need to Carefully Consider the Disruption Model

“One of my key pieces of advice — and I was trying to find an intellectual way of saying this — but just stop being annoying,” Robertson McKay shares. “There are so many aspects of activism movements — disruption and controversy has a role to play, but there are so many movements right now that are alienating allies by being annoying, by being ridiculous, and by being egocentric rather than serving the mission.”

Robertson McKay specifically references the environmental protesters who tossed soup at the glass-protected “Mona Lisa” inside the Louvre in Paris to gain attention for a more equitable food system.

“Personally, I think if you are risking damaging priceless art that future generations deserve to see, you are not convincing anyone new on climate change,” Robertson McKay declares. “You might be getting a ‘right on’ from other climate allies, but people who are in the middle going, ‘Should I buy an electric car or not?’ are not being persuaded by you; they’re being ticked off.”

Instead, Robertson McKay recommends trading the shocking shows for proactivism.

“I feel really strongly that movements need to be much more judicious about when they’re picking disruption and going for the big hits on social media and the front pages and get on with the quiet, less glamorous work where the change is really happening.”