Context and background introduction

“Clicktivism” combines the words click and activism to mean using the internet to take direct and often militant action to achieve political or social aims.

In recent years the rise of social media services such as Twitter and Facebook has been an important feature of protest movements for organising large groups of people to report events as they happen. In an era where messages and ideas can be shared and reported by people directly and without a ‘news media’, citizen journalists have used the level playing field of the internet to bypass traditional means of organising and communicating issues.

According to clicktivist.org, “The premise behind clicktivism is that social media allows for quick and easy ways to support an organisation or cause…It is the use of digital media for facilitating social change and activism.”

Could the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street or UK Uncut movements have taken place without the power of the social media click?

Or does the proliferation of phones and social media spaces mean that activists can fight injustice without having to leave their arm chairs? Is ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ sufficient to change policies and practices?


THE DEBATE

AGREE 1: ‘Clicktivism is to activism as McDonald’s is to a slow cooked meal.’

One of the most outspoken and longstanding critics of clicktivism, Micah White, believes that the end cannot justify the means and over time can be harmful to the development of activist qualities: just as fast food cannot nourish our bodies clicktivism is cannot invigorate or sustain civic spirited activism:

“In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonald’s is to a slow cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone” [1].

COUNTERPOINT:

Clicktivism isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ for campaigns, but very much the starting point, or point of initial engagement for a large number of people

Clicktivism critics are missing the point: the internet and social media are tools to be harnessed by activists and are not ends in themselves. They are the blunt imperfect implements and like all tools, you’ll get the greatest effect when you use it appropriately.

Seasoned Greenpeace activist JulietteH believes thatthe weak ties of online activism can become stronger [2]:

“It just happens that bigger bits help more, but on issues the importance of which we face (combating Climate Change, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most important fights facing my generation), we can’t afford to turn anyone down. So dismissing weak ties because they’re not strong would be about as stupid for us as turning down a kid wanting to empty his piggy bank to donate to us because we need more money than he can give. That would be insulting, callous, irresponsible and frankly counterproductive.

Dissing things that produce weak ties, like Twitter, Facebook and blogs means closing yourself to people who might just want stronger ties later on. And that would be counterproductive too.”


DISAGREE 1: Online activism is a means to an end

Clicktivism can have an extraordinary reach to alert and activate tens of thousands of people around the world just like phone calls, handwritten letters, and in-district meetings, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of people. It is a tool that can be used very effectively for just that – alerting and activating people. One.org activist Garth Moore points out that:

“A petition alone — as with any action by itself — cannot sustain a campaign or is unlikely to create change. But coupled with offline actions, media and grassroots activism, a petition can bring new voices into a campaign and help push direct action.” [11]

COUNTERPOINT:

“Clicktivism is a Trojan horse…what better way to cripple the revolutionary potential of a whole generation than to embed the logic of the marketplace within the very tools that would-be revolutionaries use?”

Editor at AdBusters, Micah White, shows that clicktivism uses invasive databases to meticulously track which members are opening emails, signing petitions, donating money. These emails monitor which emails are more frequently opened – the focus is simply on the clicks. Not on the message itself. [12]

Taken one step further, ‘sponsored petitions’ are advertised with access to the databases of supporters (such as the 75 million names on USA website Change.org). Nithin Coca, commenting on the profit model of clicktivist organisations on popular culture website Vice, states that:

“With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty International,Sierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.” [13]


AGREE 2: Clicktivism takes mere seconds, achieves little and doesn’t encourage people to engage properly with the issues concerned

South African researcher Khadija Patel believes that whileit’s easy to ‘click’ about issues on social media, it’s just as easy to disengage [3]:

“A study published in the Journal of Sociological Science in early 2014 found that the majority of people who ‘like’ a Facebook page for a cause don’t follow up that gesture with a donation. The study found that return rates for charities and campaigns on Facebook can be a tenth of those of more traditional routes such as solicitation through mail.

Analysing the ‘Save Darfur’ page on Facebook, it was found that of the one million-plus people who had liked the page, less than 3,000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years. In comparison, the broader Darfur campaign raised more than $1 million in 2008 alone. The authors of the study feel that the Facebook page simply lends the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.”

It’s easy to click, but it’s also just as easy to disengage.

More than a million people like the ‘Save Darfur’ page. But it is also these kinds of numbers, the crowd, the public act of liking the page, of being seen to engage with a cause that characterises much of our online engagement with causes. It is not activism at all. It is a few strategically placed clicks in the eyes of the people we wish to impress.”

COUNTERPOINT:

Avaaz begs to differ. Their work has greatly engaged the public

Avaaz is a global web movement of over 40 million individuals to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere. Look at the anti-Murdoch campaign as reported in The Guardian [4], for example.

Avaaz activism played a critical role in delaying the BSkyB deal until the recent scandal was able to kill it, according to Avaaz’s founder, New York-based Ricken Patel. Last November, in collaboration with 38 Degrees, a similar online campaign group, Avaaz sent 60,000 complaints to Ofcom during its initial review of the BSkyB merger.

“Through the winter, Avaaz kept chipping away, shifting its aim on to David Cameron and culture minister Jeremy Hunt. Shortly before the 2011 New Year, 50,000 of its 700,000 British members sent the pair messages that called for a full investigation into the deal. In early March, after Jeremy Hunt decided that the merger would not compromise Sky’s editorial independence, Avaaz mobilised another 40,000 complaints (which all had to be read by DCMS officials) and organised several stunts, including pickets outside the Royal Courts of Justice and Hunt’s constituency surgery.

Avaaz argues that this – coupled with its 160,000-strong petition in early July – led to the merger decision being delayed until September, then referred to the Competitions Commission, and finally junked by Murdoch altogether.”

Could the BskyB deal have been challenged and defeated without the thousands of clicktivist activists? Absolutely not.

South African researcher Khadija Patel believes that while it’s easy to ‘click’ about issues on social media, it’s just as easy to disengage [3]: “A study published in the Journal of Sociological Science in early 2014 found that the majority of people who ‘like’ a Facebook page for a cause don’t follow up that gesture with a donation. The study found that return rates for charities and campaigns on Facebook can be a tenth of those of more traditional routes such as solicitation through mail. Analysing the ‘Save Darfur’ page on Facebook, it was found that of the one million-plus people who had liked the page, less than 3,000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years. In comparison, the broader Darfur campaign raised more than $1 million in 2008 alone. The authors of the study feel that the Facebook page simply lends the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing.” It’s easy to click, but it’s also just as easy to disengage. More than a million people like the ‘Save Darfur’ page. But it is also these kinds of numbers, the crowd, the public act of liking the page, of being seen to engage with a cause that characterises much of our online engagement with causes. It is not activism at all. It is a few strategically placed clicks in the eyes of the people we wish to impress.”


DISAGREE 2: The evidence is irrefutable: online activism doesn’t discourage boots on the ground activism – in many instances it is a precursor to it

According to recent research gathered by Sortable.com, ‘Clicktivists’ are twice as likely to volunteer, twice as likely to ask for donations, two times more likely to take part in an event and four times more likely to encourage others to engage. The Red Cross raised €16million in five days after the Haiti earthquake through text message donations. Clicktivism works. [14]

COUNTERPOINT:

The classic tools of activism – dialogue, debate and negotiation with the powerful – have no place in corporate social media activism. They only further alienate individuals from the genuine actions needed to bring about change.

One student blogger, Konsolations, captured the mood in England on the digitalism of activism in the student movement in recent years:

“With recent emphasis on the pressure facing students, expectations and mounting stresses of gaining employment after graduation, it has been claimed that students aren’t prepared to risk getting excluded from the university.

Particularly aware of the clamping down of protesting now that universities are gradually asserting themselves as autonomous businesses and insistent on maintaining reputations, the general student body can be said to be more aware of the heightening risks of protesting than in past decades. This may not be a conscious awareness, but a gradual evolution that has resulted in a political ambiguity and bearing down other paths to blow off steam in bars and clubs instead – or otherwise imploding over projects, exams, fees or internships.

I feel discouraged. This is not just the hallmark of a tradition of studenthood that is dying, but how it sits in the greater topic of political apathy. Freedom of speech and protest in the digital era seems to be exercised only within the void of social media with ‘clicktivism’ and viral video stunts making people believe they are doing their bit. But ultimately, we’re all alienated audiences, no longer active participants in solidarity.” [15]


AGREE 3: Online petitions can over simplify complex ethical questions

UK global education NGO Think Global’s chief executive,Tom Franklin, arguesOften these petitions will be about the supply-chain behaviour of companies: what they buy; from whom and where; and with what resulting impact on people and the environment. The petitions present the issues in black and white terms – the corporation is behaving badly, but there’s a simple solution and the reader can make all the difference by signing a petition.

I question whether this knee-jerk clicktivism really helps people to understand the complex issues behind creating more ethical supply chains. By presenting the issues in these simplistic terms, with the pretence that solutions are straightforward, the impact may actually be counterproductive. It undermines people’s true engagement with the issue because they think that by clicking a petition they’ve done their bit, and it sends companies running for cover from criticism rather than facing their supply chain dilemmas more honestly with their customers.” [5]

COUNTERPOINT:

Clicktivism won’t work in all cases… It is a tool and like any other tool, you’ll get the greatest effect when you use it properly

Clicktivism is mainly used as a starting point for engagement with a subject. Activist Nate Prosser of clicktivist.org acknowledges [6] that it doesn’t always work, but it can work quite effectively once used in the proper way – to spark people’s interest in an issue.

As one Conservative MP puts it: “When you get ten or 20 emails on a subject you take it in your stride. When suddenly it’s 200, you start to shit yourself.” [7]


DISAGREE 3: Clicktivism doesn’t work? There’s plenty of rhetoric without any evidence to back these claims

David Babbs, CEO of UK web-based activist organisation 38 Degrees recently responded to criticisms of the shallowness of online activism:

“We are about people making their own mind up and persistently knocking on the door of those in power.”

He rejects the clicktivism label and denies that online activism can act as a displacement activity for deeper engagement.

“Where is the evidence that it [online activism] doesn’t work?”I don’t see it. Go and take a walk in a [state managed] forest that would have been sold off.

That critique is dangerously elitist – as if you have to earn your stripes as an activist. If you believe in democracy, surely the easier it is to participate in the better. That’s the power of the internet.” [16]

COUNTERPOINT:

The majority of the time, this is not how clicktivism portrays itself. It is very much a ‘like and share’ action and once that action has been completed, your job is done.

The Invisible Children social media video campaign, Kony 2012, may have done more harm than good in terms of motivating people and the aims of the campaign simply to ‘get people talking’. As reported in thejournal.ie in May 2012:

“Although there was no meaningful action taken by the overwhelming majority of the 89 million plus people who watched the video – only two emails were received by the Irish government in relation to the Ugandan warlord afterwards – they did learn about the topic, as well as spread the message.” [17]

All of the liking and sharing on Twitter and Facebook has done nothing for the people of Uganda since 2012. Digital platitudes are no replacement for old fashioned pressure in words and in the actions of the powerful.


AGREE 4: Clicktivism reinforces the fear of standing out from the crowd and taking a strong position

Clicktivism critic and activist Micah White has written on this subject in culture-jammers magazine Adbusters [8]:

“Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism. Activism is debased with advertising and computer science. What defines clicktivism is an obsession with metrics. Each link clicked and email opened is meticulously monitored. Subject lines are A/B tested and talking points focus-grouped. Clicktivists dilute their messages for mass appeal and make calls to action that are easy, insignificant and impotent.

The fundamental problem with this technocratic approach is that metrics value only what is measurable. Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky.

A few banal pronouncements about “democracy in action” coupled with an online petition will not usher in social transformation. As Malcolm Gladwell put it recently, “activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.”

Clicktivism discourages calling for drastic action. And as such, clicktivism will never breed social revolution. To think that it will is a fallacy. One that is dawning on us.”

COUNTERPOINT:

In an era of faltering trust in politicians and political systems clicktivism makes civic spaces more democratic, not less.

The broader context that online activism takes place cannot be ignored. Apathy in politics, politicians and the very idea of successfully achieving social change has been a symptom of a much deeper crisis in western democracies for some time.

The Children’s Referendum in 2012 had a 33% turnoutof eligible voters. The local and European elections in Ireland had a 52% turnout. Across the 28 EU member states the average turnout was 43 per cent in the European elections. According to a NewEuropeans.net report, voter turnout hasn’t been above 50% across Europe in the EU elections since 1994. [9]

Australian writer Sarah Burnside makes the argument that in attempting to build the good society we meet many obstacles, including, “rigid party systems, a parliament generally dominated by the executive, the influence of powerful lobbyists, a highly concentrated media landscape, and a seeming consensus between the two major parties on many issues of importance…. well might we feel powerless faced with this impasse.” [10]

By dismissing clicktivism we risk ignoring the evidence that our political systems are in the middle of a global democratic crisis in governments. Rather than creating apathy, online activism challenges it.


DISAGREE 4: It is an easy entry point for engagement – not just for ‘hard-line’ activists that want to blockade a foreign embassy

The power of clicktivism isn’t just in the technology – even your granny can do it!

The 2014 Avaaz members survey [18] with 10,000 members (as a sample of the 40+ million members worldwide) revealed many positive characteristics about members that take part in online activism, beyond the stereotype tropes that activists are typically painted with: 65% are married or are in a relationship, 62% are parents and 32% are grandparents.

Furthermore the range of people involved is incredibly diverse, based on what they do for a living: the top ten are:

1.Teaching at a school or university – 11.25%

2.Student – 8.90%

3.Technology / computers – 6.46%

4.Medicine (doctor, nurse, etc) – 6.36%

5.NGO / non-profit sector – 4.99%

6.Clerical / office administration – 4.70%

7.Scientist 4.50%

8.Business management / sales – 4.01%

9.Writing – 3.82%

10.Engineering – 3.72%

Clicktivism not only purports to be democratic in theory. It is democratic in practice.

COUNTERPOINT:

Yes, it’s an easy entry point, however, a lot of the time, the engagement of renting-a-crowd begins and ends with a ‘click’

Clicktivists have become known as ‘slacktivsts’ due to the sharing, liking and clicking in disgust at a global issue while stationed at a laptop and never having to remove bum from seat. Slacktivists can be active without ever having to leave the comfort of their own chair. Should politicians trust this form of ‘engagement’ as the movement so loudly cherishes? Reflections by politician Paul Tyler (House of Lords peer in the UK) is worth listening to in terms of 38 Degrees’ (UK web-based activist organisation) campaign to save the NHS in England:

“The organisation had not asked people to engage with any of the detail of this issue, and had given a false impression about the headlines. Some would say this route leads us into a form of one-click rent-a-mob – what is now termed “slacktivism” – enabling ill-informed and disconnected instant electronic communication to take the place of genuine political discussion and interaction. I fear this recent experience will increase the scepticism of decision-makers, when we should be instead seeking more fruitful forms of dialogue.” [19]


References

[1] Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism by Micah White (12 August 2010) The Guardian

[2] An answer to the critics of online activism by JulietteH (1 October 2010) Greenpeace blogs

[3] The shallowness of ‘clicktivism’ by Khadija Patel (14 July 2014) Eyewitness News

[4] Avaaz: activism or ‘slacktivism’? by Patrick Kingsley (20 July 2011) The Guardian

[5] Why ‘clicktivism’ won’t change corporate behaviour by Tom Franklin (7 April 2014) The Guardian

[6] ‘Clicktivism isn’t a replacement for boots-on-the-ground activism – but it does work’ by Sinead O’Carroll (20 May 2012) thejournal.ie

[7] 38 Degrees – the real opposition? by Rafael Behr (26 March 2012) The New Statesman

[8] Activism after Clicktivism by Micah White (Jan/Feb 2011) issue #93 of Adbusters

[9] 2014 European Elections: 43.09% – achievement or failure? by Diana Ondza (2 June 2014) NewEuropeans.net

[10] Of despair, tampons and clicktivism by Sarah Burnside (15 January 2014) Overland magazine

[11] When clicking counts: In defense of slacktivism and clicktivism by Garth Moore (3 May 2012) One.org

[12] A vision of post-clicktivist activism by Micah White (26 July 2011) AdBusters

[13] Who’s getting rich off profit-driven ‘clicktivism’ by Nithin Coca (11 August 2014) Vice (Motherboard Channel)

[14] The rise of the slacktivist (3 April 2013) by Sortable.com

[15] Farewell student activism. Hello apathy. by UK student blogger Konsolations (3 October 2014) konsolations.wordpress.com

[16] How ‘clicktivism’ has changed the face of political campaigns by Emma Howard (24 September 2014) The Guardian

[17] ‘Clicktivism isn’t a replacement for boots-on-the-ground activism – but it does work’ by Sinead O’Carroll (20 May 2012) thejournal.ie

[18] Poll Results 2014 on Avaaz.org (2014)

[19] The Lords are listening, but not to rent-a-mob email campaigns by Paul Tyler (20 October 2011) The Guardian

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