Online social change campaigns. Chances are you’ve been involved in one, in some small way. Between them, campaign sites Change.org and Avaaz get more than 50 million hits a month. Meanwhile, engagement with traditional political processes is arguably at an all-time low. Turnout at the last election was the third lowest on record. Membership to the main political parties is at bafflingly low levels – less than 1% of the electorate. Trade unions are dwindling, with membership down to the lowest it’s been since the 1940s. This is often (deliberately) misconstrued as a sign of political apathy.
Yet, a recent British Social Attitudes survey found that interest in politics is actually up some 7% since 1983. This correlation between traditional forms of political engagement decreasing and the rise of digital campaigning has led to scepticism towards the latter from some quarters. Are they right to be worried, or is digital activism just a more accessible form of political engagement that is better suited to modern-day life?
Digital activism: an antidote for disenfranchisement?
Disengagement with Westminster politics reflects a fundamental failure on its behalf to deliver on some of the basic provisions of democracy. For a representative democracy, British politics is grossly unrepresentative, dominated by rich, white men and beholden to the whims of their big business chums. Ethnic minorities, the poor, people with disabilities and even women – who make up 51% of the population – make up a tiny and disproportionate minority of the political class. Politicians have also failed in their duty to provide a check on corporate power and redistribute resources more evenly.
Inequality in Britain has spiralled since the turn of the century, with the top 10% owning nearly 55% of the wealth. While politicians complain about the “spam” it creates, digital campaigning allows those disenfranchised by a broken political system to feel they have some sort of influence on issues that matter to them.
Digital activism has in some circles become synonymous with “slacktivism”, a term used in derision to highlight the minimal effort needed and lack of ongoing support. While it’s early days in terms of research in this area, the few studies that have been carried out don’t seem to show any evidence for this. In a paper for the journal Consumer Research, researchers found that users carrying out what they described as “token gestures” – such as signing an online petition – did in fact increase the probability of them engaging in deeper levels of support or commitment to the cause at hand.
A separate study, conducted jointly by Georgetown University’s Centre for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, found that people who shared a cause on social media participated in more than twice as many “supporting activities” – both online and off – than their peers who didn’t. They were also twice as likely to volunteer their time for a good cause, but equally likely to donate money.
Aside from engaging those who otherwise wouldn’t in political activities, digital activism also enables people who couldn’t engage in certain activities – such as protesting in the street or occupying buildings – because of their circumstances, such as a disability. For these groups in particular, online forms of activism can offer a serious sense of empowerment. Broadcaster, journalist, and access and inclusion expert, Mik Scarlet tells me: “So many people I am in contact with freely admit that they are pretty much tied to their homes, so the ability to interact and play a constructive role in a campaign has enabled them to gain a voice and that is a real confidence builder.”
The cynicism towards digital activism does a disservice to these already marginalised groups. By privileging certain forms of activism – especially the most physical and visible – we risk alienating those who can’t participate and reinforcing prejudices against people with disabilities. “To me, part of the reason why some look down on online activism is that it has given a voice to group of people who tend to have a similar experience and this political leaning,” says Mik. “While disabled people are not all rabid lefties like myself, they are voicing an experience that asks for equality and fair treatment.” Clearly, excluding these groups is counter-productive for progressive political movements, as people with disabilities have proved unequivocally they have an extremely valuable contribution to make to political causes.
Applying critical thought to digital activism
While online campaigning can no doubt be invaluable to a number of political causes, effective activists are distinguished by their capacity for critical thought, and that includes being reflexive about their own activities and behaviours. Although there may not be strong evidence that digital activism acts as displacement for other forms of political action, it is essential to recognise its weaknesses and limitations. A major concern with online campaigns is that users will develop so-called “cause fatigue” due to the sheer proliferation of them.
Related to this, is a tendency for online campaigns – especially disparate, single-issue petitions – to have too narrow a focus. Tactically, this makes sense and explains how so many campaigns have had success by zoning in on a very specific and achievable end. But strategically speaking, this haphazard milieu is unlikely to foster wider and more lasting political change.
Perhaps even more worryingly, the seemingly ceaseless conveyor-belt of online campaigns discourages us from truly getting to grips with the issues at hand. If you are signing several petitions a week, does anyone really have the time to thoroughly research what they are supporting – or is there a tendency to read the catchy headline, observe the emotive image and simply sign?
This genuinely problematic aspect of online campaigns is perhaps best encapsulated by the Kony 2012 saga. In an attempt to purportedly raise awareness for the use of child soldiers, Invisible Children created a video that went viral, to the extent of influencing Western policy-makers. But the film was heavily criticised for its wildly inaccurate claims and for its attempt to raise funds to support military intervention to stop Joseph Kony, instead of addressing the root causes and offering support to child soldiers. Millions across the world seemed to uncritically accept Invisible Children’s account, further propagating misinformation and arguably doing more harm than good in Uganda.
There is a tendency to read a catchy headline, observe an emotive image and simply sign
It’s tempting to assume that platforms for online campaigns are simply neutral tools that are determined by the user, but this is not the case. For starters, the social networking sites that are so widely used to disseminate online campaigns are businesses – and big businesses at that. Even campaign sites such as Change.org and Care2 are for-profit companies. When digital activism is achieving desirable ends that are complementary to the business interests of the likes of Twitter and Facebook, they are only too happy to depict themselves as pillars of the democratic process.
Much of the rhetoric about the positive impact created by online campaigns is surely just a result of positive brand promotion by these companies. When Facebook was credited with “changing the world” in the Arab spring, it must have been like a wet dream for its marketing team. On the other hand, when social media was implicated in the UK riots in 2011, there was a lot of hand-wringing and the social networks were only too happy to cooperate with the authorities in targeting those involved.
Finally, although some forms of physical activism can be excluding for certain groups, the same can most definitely be said for digital activism. In fact, if activists wish to consider themselves progressive, it’s absolutely essential that they recognise that of a global population of some 7.3 billion people, more than 4.4 billion of the world’s poorest still don’t have internet access. This alone should be enough to temper the haughty claims about the democratisation that has occurred due to the internet.
A holistic, inclusive approach
Ultimately, the distinction between online and offline activism is something of a false dichotomy. These days – for those of us who are lucky enough to have internet access – the two worlds are tightly interrelated, and this is no different for activism than anywhere else. Dom Aversano has a background in offline activism, having attended UKUncut actions and been involved with the Occupy movement, but his petition to get Iain Duncan Smith to live on the same amount of money as someone on Jobseeker’s Allowance garnered some 482,756 signatures.
“I find that online activism is at its most effective when it also has an offline dimension. In fact, any online campaign which sustains itself will almost certainly have an active life offline,” says Dom. And he’s right. In today’s world, digital platforms should be seen as a tool in the arsenal of an activist, but by no means the only one.
A healthy dose of cynicism and critical thought is essential for anyone involved in political action, but unjustified derision of online campaigns in general is ultimately counter-productive. “A tendency I am wary of in activism is when people become purist about any particular method, rather than focusing on outcomes,” warns Dom. “For example, there’s a quite common belief in activist circles that direct action constitutes the ‘truest’ form of activism, with all other forms existing beneath it, or outright useless.”
If activists wish to effect any real social change they need to adopt a holistic approach to political action; they need to be as inclusive as possible for different groups; and, crucially, they need to start connecting the dots with others to make sure change is both broad and deep.