My lazy Sunday morning was ruined by a “whacktivist” on a friend’s Facebook page on whale and dolphin issues.

To explain what I mean, here are some definitions:

ACTIVIST – someone who tries to draw public attention and concern to an issue they consider to be important. This typically involves trying to convert an uncaring or unaware public into a public that is aware of and likewise concerned about the issue.

Activists are an important part of society. Activists often lead major societal shifts that have changed things for the better. Civil rights and environmental activists were responsible for encouraging ground breaking laws and societal changes in the 1960s and 1970s.

WHACKTIVIST – someone who tries to convert the public into caring about an issue using inappropriate means, such as insulting those who do not agree with them and using arguments that are illogical or factually incorrect. Whacktivists often do not respect the rights of those who are opposed to them – they use bullying, harassing, and threatening violence and other criminal acts. Whacktivists often see issues in black and white and are resistant to opinions and facts that do not fit their world view.

In conservation and environmental protection, there are two main ways to get people to stop doing a problematic activity for conservation and the environment:

One is to make the activity illegal, coupled with respecting and enforcing that law. This initially involves persuading someone in power that such a law is in the interests of society and/or will make them popular with a significant proportion of the electorate. This usually means that your argument must be more persuasive than your opponent’s argument, which is often based on economics, job creation and/or political donations.

The second option is to change society’s view of how it perceives the issue and to get them to change their behavior to prevent the problem from occurring. This is usually done by well though-out, factually correct campaigns and outreach designed to promote behavioral change and understanding/concern. I don’t say “education,” as very often simply providing facts does not lead to any changes in opinion or behavior. As the result of such campaigns and outreach, slowly society’s views change and the “cultural norm” shifts so that the conservation/environmental problem becomes unacceptable.

How many times has someone been convinced to change their mind by being yelled at and called names? That usually just makes them stubborn. Imagine at election time and you were thinking of voting for one party, and a representative from the other side yelled at you, called you an idiot, then said you should die. Would that make you likely to switch sides and vote for their party? Absolutely not – you’d probably call the cops. The person who approaches you with respect, listens to you and who provides you with a good argument in a collegial, logical way is the one who makes you think, “Huh. Maybe they are the better party”.

There are many conservation activists who totally get the above. They are the ones that people listen to and who are changing attitudes.

Unfortunately there are many whacktivists out there, especially ones that engage in issues that involve charismatic and high profile species such as dolphins, shark, elephants and so on, as these species tend to evoke more concern and passion in members of the general public.

Increasingly, dealing with the whacktivists on “your” side is almost as important as dealing with those on the other side of a conservation issue. Whacktivists make issues more polarized, putting off potential allies, reducing the credibility of conservation movements and undermining outreach efforts. Opponents to your issue will quickly point to the most extreme whacktivists and highlight them, saying “look at who our opponents are – crazy, illogical extremists” and try to paint all those that oppose them with the same brush.

Why are there so many whacktivists? Perhaps it’s because of the idea – exacerbated by social media and the internet – that everyone’s opinion is valid and that you have a right to say whatever you want (even if threatening and unfactual). Couple that with the greater ease with which you can do this in today’s social media age. Moreover, you can find any opinion online to back up your personal beliefs or prejudices, and the public has an increasing inability to discern “opinion” from “facts”.

How can we prevent activists from becoming whacktivists? Can we engage and convert the whacktivists, turning them into useful activist allies? Or at least stop them from undermining conservation efforts?

I don’t know that I have the answers, but this is what I suggest to conservation/environmental scientists who engage with activists.

  • Activists can be a valuable ally in promoting your conservation issue – respect them and their concerns.
  • Develop a respectful and trusting dialogue with activists involved in your issue. Don’t patronize or insult them. They may not be scientists, or have even taken science classes, but most activists are highly intelligent, passionate, enthusiastic and creative.
  • Be a source of factual information and expertise. Politely try to provide them with the correct information that they need. A good relationship will mean that they will turn to you again and again for scientific facts and trust your information.
  • Help to channel the activist’s talents. Don’t try to ram a square peg into a round hole. For example, if they are artists, suggest how they could use these skills to further the cause.
  • Suggest training, books, meetings, documentaries or other materials that might be useful for them to build their skills and knowledge about the issue.
  • Encourage them to be an activist, not a whacktivist – that a respectful “long game,” based on good logical arguments, works better than a blitz of fire and brimstone.
  • Sometimes you have to agree to disagree. You may have different opinions on some issues. People don’t agree 100% of the time. Don’t let those disagreements derail an otherwise useful and productive relationship.

battling trolls

P.S. Several people have asked me what you should do if you  try to engage and reason with -and try to convert – whacktivisits and they just ignore science, logic, facts and can’t be reasoned with. Well : (a) for your own sanity you can block them; or (b) you could   smack them down with a big stick made of facts and hope they go away (this approach has worked several times for me including this example: https://storify.com/Craken_MacCraic/they-have-a-cave-troll); (c) you can warn your friends and colleagues about that person and not to engage with them (“blacklist” them). Sadly, sometimes there is no reasoning with crazy and like Michael Myers and Freddie Kruger, sometimes they just keep coming back for more.


This blog has now been expanded into an article on advocacy, activist, slacktivist and whacktivism in Frontiers in Marine Science.

The open access article can be found here:  : Parsons ECM (2016). “Advocacy” and “activism” are not dirty words – how activists can better help conservation scientists. Front. Mar. Sci. 3:229. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00229  http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fmars.2016.00229/full