Last month’s e-campaigning forum held a debate on one of the big issues currently vexing campaigners- when or does activism become slacktivism.
Micah White and Malcolm Gladwell kick started this debate in the Guardian and New York Times, both framed by the experience ofmoveon.org- in simple terms a longer established US version of 38 Degrees. White and Gladwell both suggest that the use of digital activism has led to
“Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal”
White goes on to say that the focus on click through, open rates, bounce rates and the measurement tools of the advertising industry stifle creativity and the development of genuinely radically ideas -drowned out by economies of scale.
This kind of stinging criticism did not go unnoticed by people in the campaigning sector, hence the ongoing discussion – the e-campaigning forum didn’t reach any conclusions itself, although the discussion did move the debate on. (catch the videos on youtube via fairsay) 38 degrees, in particular came in for some criticism for encouraging the clicktivist culture. Much of this isn’t fair, 38 degrees, and other organisations including many charities have reached out to more people and engaged them to take action. Two thirds of 38 degrees 750,000 members were not previously involved in campaigning. E-campaigning and social media have offered people new, and easy ways to get involved in our democratic process. That is a good thing and echoes The Pew Research Centre’ findings that suggest being active online is more likely to make you active offline as well.
Micah White is wrong to suggest that a focus on click throughs and advertising demeans the world of activists. It is a way of measuring and learning from impact, donors and funders deserve to know what impact their work is having. It took years for the PR world to move away from using AVE as a unit of measurement for impact. Impact needs to be about change achieved, campaigners should embrace PR practitioners Barcelona principles and use those to show how they are using scarce resources effectively.
Where organisations need to be careful, and Gladwell and White make valid criticisms is the understanding of the proportion of influence it can have. The most common forms of activism tend to be those that take the least time, changing an avatar, adding a name to an online petition, donating a twitter or facebook status. You’ve probably seen your friends or followers do it and may occasionally have wondered how much help it actually was to a cause. The answer – all too frequently is not much.
This is because whilst e-campaigning is a relatively new and shiny way to attract supporters and ask them to take action – for the action to be meaningful it needs to fulfil far more basic criteria for a good campaign. The campaign needs to have a purpose, tell a story, be relevant and ask for achievable change. E-campaigning is a means to an end, rather than a means itself.
This isn’t to say some of the most used forms of e-campaigning are not worthwhile. They are. For example, online petitions can shine a spotlight on an issue. Most recently a wide range of organisations came together to mobilise support on the Save Our Forests campaign. Half a million people signed the petition – but it was successful as it was part of a wider campaign. The Action Centre offers a wide range of extra tools, from posters to letters to MP’s. But the campaigns success was bedded in the story it told. The road user charging petition had success for similar reasons, it told a story and was one that people could relate to. The ongoing challenge for campaigns like this is to build a lasting relationship with their supporters. How many of those against road user charging are continuing to campaign on transport or motor issues?
For every Save Our Forests or Road User pricing, there are more petitions that are unsuccessful. Taking a look at the Downing Street petition website shows how many are likely to come to fruition. This of course applies to offline petitions as well. Petitions have long been a way of highlighting support for an issue or a cause – and can engage people who are normally more distant from the democratic process. As the report of the Public Petitions Committee in the Assembly shows. The limitations of petitions are neatly summed up by Lord German’s view of the petitions committee, “that is it is a spotlight, not a solutions committee”.
The danger is that people use petitions, or e-campaigning as a solution not a spotlight or a tool for achieving change. The risks associated with that are amplified when working with people who are historically more distant from the democratic process. By raising expectations that a petition, or new avatar, or facebook status can change the world on its own campaigners make a rod for their own back. However, don’t offer them and you may miss out on people who want to engage. Gladwell suggests that the sit ins of the 1950’s and 60’s would never happen now as people would take to e-campaigning instead. The most recent example of the UK Uncut (and its US equivalent) show that sit ins do still happen, they just don’t appeal to a wider group of supporters when not well integrated or suffering from the odd strategic blunder.
Used carefully, e campaigning offers a tool to engage more people in our democratic process. But without care we will build an army of clicktivists, where slack activism fails to lead to change, and people in turn lose faith in their ability to achieve change. As we widen the scope of our campaigning infrastructure in Wales we need to guard against that approach developing.