Is Digital Activism as effective as it is made out to be? Is clicktivism a problem for democracy or is it a new form of activism that can hold the powerful to account?
How should we define digital activism?
A practise originating in the advent of the social media era most often emphasising a type of radical action in support of or in opposition to a controversial or conflict laden issue.
We won’t find activism where there is consensus all across the board, like no-brainer stuff everyone in their right mind would agree with; raising the minimum wage, extending summer holidays, increasing pensions, condemning the cartoonish decadence and depravity of the Trump Presidency .. well.. never mind.
Digital Activism or Online Activism can take many forms, it’s nature tends to be rapid and explosive, it’s connotations are those of brevity and unpredictability and it’s a way to use the internet and online technologies for mass mobilisation to spark some political action.
This can be done through various methods via social media; liking, posting, commenting, sharing, blogging, vlogging, polling, petitioning, trending, tagging, hash-tagging and poking, yes, that last one is legit.
But how effective is it? Is it a legitimate way to test arguments, bounce ideas, organise citizens and challenge power or is it just a meaningless flirtation with fun mobile apps? Is it a futile distraction from the grunt work and boots on the ground activism that needs to be done? Or worse yet is it adversely affecting important social issues?
Is it actively deflating and postponing long overdue conversations and much needed debates? Hmm..
Social movements and collective action are more chiselled concepts that still fall under the digital activism umbrella, the common perception is to characterise these as; Organised - Good. Messy - Bad. However this does not necessarily hold true, social movements can be loosely organised but they are always geared with a specific goal in mind. Additionally the global access and the immediacy of the technology at our fingertips makes for a very fertile ground to bounce off ideas and rapidly disseminate argument and inform, enter or create conversations like we’ve never been able to before.
One of the largest issues with traditional activism was trying to identify audiences which were interested and passionate about social issues and then determine which of those were most likely to be swayed and get engaged, that’s now a thing of the past.
This perhaps is the prime critique of social media echo chambers;
Nowadays it’s so easy to find like minded people that repeat everything we ‘re saying that we end up interacting with them and with them alone, repeating and parroting away the same uncontested ideas.
The internet has become a conversation teleporter and it’s facilitated our ability to recruit and rally people around a cause. When opposing systemic establishment and oppressive entities in power it’s our sharpest sword and when building societal movements it’s our first and foremost foundational brick.
Take the case of ‘Movimento delle Sardine’, The Sardines Movement in Milan, Italy last December, an unsophisticated coalition of free thinkers and hate speech condemners opposing Matteo Salvini’s populist machine. The ‘Lega’ had been meticulously targeting Italy’s displeasure with migration policy, disseminating social conservatism and ominous far-right ideologies packed and gift wrapped in typically brazen but seductive Salvini rhetoric. The then named Northern League had set its political cross-hairs on a key upcoming regional election; the historically left leaning ‘Emiglia Romana’. The Sardines; a movement born in a Bologna flat planned an impromptu flash mob to counter Salvini’s campaign appearance. 12,000 people showed up. More than double the amount expected, all of them showed up to civilly promote human rights without espousing any political affiliation.
The following month Salvini lost the key regional election.
The critical observation here is that online awareness may be great but it still takes actively showing up and protesting to get things done! But perhaps digital activism is not the endgame at all, perhaps it’s just a powerful tool, a spark that can light one hell of a bonfire.
Other notable social media inspired movements;
-The highly controversial Trump Baby balloon, often mistaken with the highly controversial and equally inflated one floating around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
-The Led By Donkeys political campaign group originating via a twitter account, who direct their ire to UK politicians, naming and shaming their political U-turns and putting up political billboards of their contradictory tweets.
Simple yes, but super effective.
The bulk of the consternation and criticism seems to be focused on ‘clicktivism’, this means measuring clicks as viable figures of viewership interest and public engagement. Politicians and political campaigns, vain and desperate for affection as they usually are, do this all the time. To them the ‘clicks’ signify the amount of outreach their messaging is getting - a quick, easy and harmless show of support. Some argue that this is only a passive form of activism, where is the real engagement?
‘’I see that a lot of people want to care and want to help, but in general I feel like people don’t really want to inconvenience their own lives. And I saw a lot of people just reacting to things on social media’’
This has always been the main issue, is the audience really engaging themselves here and actually entering the conversation or are people just lying there and clicking away? Some even argue that’s it’s all about marketing and that the nuts and bolts of value led activism have been surrendered to baseless inflated figures of fake engagement, branding, shock and awe tactics and ominous uses of targeted segmentation (as Brexit would attest to). This article even predicts these new-fangled methods will all disappear. Just an in vogue fad which will inevitably run it’s course.
That was 2010.
Others assert that the entire concept is fragile and doomed to fail since the motivations for such online movements whilst often coming from the right place are rarely prepared for the grind. The people involved don’t know the landscape of the issues and the historical battles. These upstarts haven’t experienced the struggle for each marginal gain. They lack the deeply core values of traditional activism and the personal affinity to the causes at hand, this is called operating with ‘weak ties’.
The counter argument is that activists can’t afford to be so elitist and that every type of engagement counts;
‘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’.
JulietteH, Green Peace International
A more serious accusation levelled at clicktivism is that not only is it fleeting, achieves relatively little and fails to advance the conversation BUT it’s ALSO substituting for active participation in issues and actually discouraging grass root activism.
It’s actually hurting the cause itself.
Clicktivism here has become ‘slacktivism’, actually promoting lazy attitudes in place of genuine attempts to make a difference and bring about the much needed societal changes. Some critics even argue that this is the mark of the upcoming generation. Disinterest and ambivalence is masquerading under heavy social media usage, brief interest at surface level yes but very little productivity and actual engagement to the cause.
But perhaps the problem is deeper than that, I’ve heard this slight against today’s youth too many times recently and it might have struck a nerve. It made me recall Dave Chappelle’s chillingly accurate social commentary in his 2017 special, ‘The Age of Spin’, where he recounts how as a young kid in school they were shown a live televised feed of the Challenger Shuttle Disaster of 1986 where it tragically exploded and everyone on board was immediately presumed dead. The implications and shock factor scarring the public pysche at the time.
‘In your generation, it’s like the space shuttle blows up every fucking day. How can you care about anything when you know every goddamn thing? I’m getting over one cop shooting, and then another one happens, and then another one happens, and another one happens. I’m crying about Paris, and then Brussels happens…So you just give the fuck up. That’s the hallmark of your generation’
Dave Chappelle, Age of Spin, 2017
As a member of Gen Z myself, perhaps it’s our advancements in technology, our very own social media that have blunted our ability to fully react to issues affecting our democracies. We have access to so much data, so quickly and so easily on a continuous loop that the stakes don’t seem so stark anymore and as a public, as citizens and as activists we are experiencing media fatigue. We are living in an age of so many circulating narratives and false information that it becomes so difficult even choosing what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false let alone which causes are worth pursuing.
Who knows what’s really going on anymore?
This is exactly what we have to fight, we need to ensure that we filter out the misinformation and the noise so we can focus on our power to influence decision making at the highest levels. If this last week or more accurately the last 4 years have shown us anything is that we now know the dangers of giving up, of letting administrations gradually move the goal posts, of taking democracy for granted, of not voting, of getting tired, of not bothering to understand because understanding just feels more difficult nowadays, after all why should the truth be so hard to obtain? As Joe would say, Just give it to me straight! I can take it.
But it all adds up.
And if you ask me, and if you’re still reading this you are asking me (bless you) these Gen Z narratives are just a lazy way of admitting that the onus is now on us to fix what those before us have so spectacularly screwed up. It warrants the question; does it matter how we protest? Does it matter how we engage in the discourse? What’s wrong with being an armchair activist?. Doesn’t everyone have the right to contribute in any way they want to or can?
‘We’re all doing our own little bit. And if we all do a little bit, then together it’s a big bit.’
So the journey may vary along the way and not everyone can travel in the same vehicle, you find people on the bicycle lane, others doing a steady 40 mph in a Fiat while some compete in the Monaco Grand Prix. Its not important. The destination while it may not always be so clear or linear should remain the same; learning to be better just that little bit more everyday and slowly moving ourselves, each other and our society forward to places we haven’t been to yet.
Yes, there is rarely ever a finish line in sight and more than a fair share of stumbles and detours along the way. There is always the next place. And there is always the next goal. And they always seem to be just as important as the last one. But sometimes, maybe every once in a while when we allow ourselves to pause long enough to look back we might just be able to see how far we’ve come.