30/11/2012 11:28 GMT | Updated 30/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Clicktivism: A Model For 21st Century Activism?

A war is being fought. Its battlefields are the pages of social networking sites across the globe, and its soldiers are armed with placards and computer cursors. This is the battle of traditional activism versus clicktivism.

As a politics student who recently co-coordinated the launch of Peace Of Paper, an online community peace project, and who works within the field of online community management, this topic is one which continues to perturb me, often leading to my changing opinion throughout any discussion about its intrinsics.

Despite what you may think, the conflict between traditional activists opposing the online marketisation of social change and digital activists (often referred to derogatively as 'slacktivists') is not a particularly new one. Back in 1987, a husband and wife team sold their California-based software company for $13.8m, allowing the politically left-leaning founders to start an online political organisation called 'MoveOn'. This site combined the principles of modern marketing with the technical skills of computer programming, and has been referred to as 'the model for 21st century activism'.

Not everyone shares this optimistic view, however. In 2010, Micah White wrote "we've come to rely far too heavily on a particular form of internet organizing...we have become so dependent on digital gimmicks that our revolutionary potential is now constrained".

In many ways this rings true; we have become obsessed with the digital marketing measurements of click-throughs, retweets and likes, assigning value only to that which we can quantitatively record. By doing this, we neglect a vital human element; that spark behind activist movements and revolution which ignites and inspires each individual to stand up, raise their voice and be heard.

Micah White goes on to argue that 'clicktivism reinforces the fear of standing out from the crowd and taking a strong position. It 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'.

Could this be right? In 2012, are we completely turning our backs on the trend of online petitions and 'click causes'? If not, should we be?

Contrary to what I've written in the past, I would argue not. I'd like to speak out in defence of clicktivism; a bit of online activism for online activism, if you will.

Whilst it is certainly true that clicktivism often lacks the traditional gusto and media-friendly frenzy witnessed in 'real life' activism, such as protests and marches, it shouldn't be consigned to the scrapheap of irrelevancy quite yet. In fact, in many ways it is doing a service for traditional activism by piquing the interest of those who might not otherwise have noticed a cause - clicktivism places the issues of today slap bang in your face(book) and makes them hard to ignore.

Critics of digital activism are often quick to loudly dismiss it as ineffective and inefficient, but often they are referencing only the 'passive clicktivism' tactics such as online petitions and Facebook status campaigns. They fall into the trap of overlooking the more proactive (though not necessarily positive or indeed completely successful) digital projects and organisations, a handful of which are outlined below.

Kony 2012

Created by the NGO Invisible Children, KONY2012 was released on March 5th this year in partner with an ongoing campaign to raise the profile of Ugandan cult and militia leader, indicted war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony, with the aim of having him arrested by December 2012 - the time when the campaign expires.

The film, which is about 30 minutes long, is a masterpiece of evocative, compelling narrative - combining heart melting snippets of conversations with creator Jason Russell's own son with gut-wrenching facts about the atrocities being committed by Joseph Kony and his men, the film has lessons for anyone who wants to communicate in a way that inspires emotion and action. It is the anatomy of a viral success in the 21st century.

Although the film was the target of a furious backlash (as well as reports surrounding the mental breakdown of creator Jason Russell), the promotional video undeniably was a viral success. As of today (28/11/12), the film had over 94 million views on Youtube alone. It was also shared on Vimeo and, of course, on the Invisible Children website itself. In fact, Invisible Children's first video was the speediest ever to reach 100 million views - incredibly, a poll conducted at the time suggested that over half of young adult Americans had heard about the video and the campaign in the days following the film's release.

But what has the 'real' impact of this campaign been?

The film also called for an April 20 2012 world wide canvassing campaign, called 'Cover the Night', though this was far less successful than the original campaign; after waking up to an awkwardly low turnout for 'Cover the Night', one tweet noted that they 'Find the silence around #Kony'12 interesting. It's muted embarrassment from prior supporters, mixed with quiet smugness from detractors."

It seems that despite the initial online momentum, Invisible Children's toughest challenge may just be trying to remain visible.

It's not all doom and gloom; though it appears to have lost a lot of its momentum, the campaign is still inspiring some to take action - on November 17th 2012, roughly 3000 people - mostly college aged students - descended on the White House in Washington to push the KONY2012 campaign forward. Wearing red shirts, they raised banners and chanted slogans, and even busted out glowsticks for a rave after the official protest.

Most notably perhaps, it has resulted in a resolution by the US Senate and contributed to the decision to send troops by the African Union.


Love them or hate them, you certainly know about them.

A loosely associated 'hacktivist' group, which is not necessarily tied to a single online entity, Anonymous originated in 2003 on the imageboard 4chan and claim to represent the concept of many online and offline community users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitised global brain.

Relying on the collective power of its individual participants, Anonymous has launched a plethora of online protests, attacks and campaigns. These include:

  • Launching a coordinated DDoS attack on the International Federation of the Photographic Industry (responsible for safeguarding recording artists' rights) after The Pirate Bay co-defendants were found guilty of facilitating extensive copyright infringements in 2009.
  • An attack described as 'the single largest internet attack in its history' after file-sharing website Megaupload was shut down by the US Department of Justice and the FBI in 2012.
  • Working with Occupy Wall Street protesters to help organise demonstrations. Anonymous also used social networking sites to urge Occupy protesters to avoid civil disorder and to keep protests peaceful for maximum impact.
  • Anonymous has become globally well known for its protests against the Church of Scientology. The project, known as 'Project Chanology', was started in response to the Church of Scientology's attempts to remove material from a highly publicised interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise from the Internet in January 2008. The project was publicly launched in the form of a video posted to YouTube, "Message to Scientology", on January 21, 2008.
  • Most recently, and in response to Operation Pillar of Cloud in November 2012, Anonymous launched a series of attacks on Israeli government websites. Anonymous protested what they called the "barbaric, brutal and despicable treatment of the Palestinian people".

Whether or not you agree with their tactics, Anonymous have certainly mastered the art of attention-grabbing online activism. Their antics are often headline news, and have resulted in 'real life' reactions, tallying up a total of around 88 Anonymous members arrested (though the figure is likely to be more).

In terms of cause impact, Anonymous appear to be affecting the psyches of those they target; the Wall Street Journal claimed this year that US law enforcement officers are concerned about cyber-retaliation attacks by the group, and a prosecutor in the Wikileaks investigation faced so many personal intrusions that colleagues became concerned about the possibility of bodily harm, according to journalist Devlin Barrett, who explained the Department of Justice was acting unusually by suppressing the names of officials in public statements to the press, but not in court documents.

Dana Bakdounis

Dana Bakdounis' case provides us with an example of how a lone digital activist can have a huge impact.

A picture posted on a Facebook group supporting women's rights in Syria and further afield has polarised opinion and gained the attention of press worldwide. The picture stirring up such a fuss was of 21-year-old Dana Bakdounis, without the veil she had grown up wearing.

As reported by the BBC, Dana had been brought up in conservative Saudi Arabia, but it was as a reaction against conformity that she first removed her veil in August 2011. Then, in October 2012 and in support of the online campaigns for women's rights in the Arab world, Dana decided to post a picture of herself online.

The BBC goes on to report that 'looking right into the lens, her short-shorn hair in full view, she held an ID picture of her previously veiled self, along with a note that read: "The first thing I felt when I took off my veil" and "I'm with the uprising of women in the Arab world because, for 20 years, I wasn't allowed to feel the wind in my hair and [on] my body"'.

Dana is just one of the women using online channels to make their voices heard - to take part in a protest which they might not otherwise have had any access to, and to share their stories with those who may never have heard them otherwise.

The Arab Spring

As has been said many times before, it was not Facebook, Twitter or Youtube which brought down Hosni Mubabrak; the Egyptian people did that.

However, it would be naive to argue that social media and online activism did not contribute to the events across the Middle East, and help to secure their place as effective tools for the conduct of political campaigns.

This conclusion was reached in a new paper written by Tim Eaton who currently works for BBC Media Action on media development projects in the Middle East. The paper is the product of over a year of research and seeks to analyse the use of online activism in the Egyptian uprisings of January and February 2011, drawing out the lessons learned in addition to applying them to the wider context of the Arab Spring.

38 Degrees

On their 'about us' page, 38 Degrees describes itself as a British not-for-profit political-activism organisation that campaigns on a diverse range of issues, such as the environment, climate change, the National Health Service (NHS), democratic media ownership, child poverty and political reform. The organisation claims to have over one million members. It describes itself as "progressive" and claims to "campaign for fairness, defend rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy in the UK".

In case you're wondering, 38 Degrees takes its name from the critical angle at which the incidence of a human-triggered avalanche is greatest. In September 2011, 38 Degrees was named 'Best UK Internet NGO' by the Oxford Internet Institute (yes, there is such a thing).

Its campaigns have included:

  • Campaign against the proposed sale of state-owned forests starting in October 2010. 38 Degrees launched a petition against the selling off of forests, raising concerns about loss of public access and impact on conservation. 38 Degrees members paid for an opinion poll which showed that 84% of the public were opposed to the government plans, and funded national newspaper adverts condemning the proposal. The 38 Degrees petition passed 500,000 signatures on 11 February 2011.
  • Campaign against tax avoidance starting in January 2011. 38 Degrees ran a series of member-funded adverts in national newspapers, challenging George Osborne for his record on tackling tax dodging.
  • 'Protect the BBC' - As well as being involved in the successful campaign to save BBC Radio 6 Music from closure, 38 Degrees have campaigned heavily for the BBC to remain free from political interference, campaigning against Boris Johnson's demand that the next director-general of the BBC be a supporter of the Conservative Party.

Such campaigns and subsequent successes have seen 38 Degrees nominated for the likes of an Observer Ethical Award as Campaigning Group of the Year, and being listed in Wired Magazine's 'Wired 100' as a 'powerful political force'. 38 Degrees remains a strong example of how powerful well-organised online activist organisation can actually be.

The list could go on - about the 13 million Americans who made donations to relief efforts online and seven million set up their own hurricane relief efforts using the internet following hurricane Katrina, the new international training institute to teach online tactics for human rights campaigners being set up in the Italian city of Florence or even the way in which the UK government is harnessing the power of the digital protest on their e-petitions site.

This article isn't about trying to persuade you that online activism is the only way forward for all social change movements; instead, I would argue that online activism is - and always has been - a means to an end.

When done properly, online campaign videos can reach out and grab you, dragging you kicking and screaming into emotional involvement in a cause. Online groups and sites can act as a platform for local, national, international and even global organisation - the key behind any campaign. Digital petitions can have extraordinary reach to alert and inspire tens of thousands of people around the world, some of whom might not otherwise have even bothered reading the newspaper that day, let alone partaking in social change.

Like many other calls for social change, online activism faces the challenge of human concentration - many people find themselves asking how a digital campaign can generate sustained interest, and gain the momentum of passion as well as popularity.

Despite its many setbacks, it would be foolish to consign digital activism to the scrapheap of ineffectiveness and irrelevance. It seems fair to argue that, coupled with offline action, digital activism can provide a channel for new voices to spread incredibly quickly - an outlet for those with no other way of making sure that their story gets told.