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'Clicktivism isn't a replacement for boots-on-the-ground activism - but it does work'

TheJournal.ie takes a look at the phenomena of clicktivism, its lesser cousin slacktivism and its out-of-control sibling hactivism.

Image: :)gab(: via Flickr/Creative Commons

MUCH HAS BEEN said about the Kony 2012 campaign which saw almost 90 million people watch a video online – the most ever in that new-found film category, the viral.

The makers of the video, Invisible Children, came under fire for being too simplistic in its approach to the issues in Uganda. However, supporters claim the video did exactly what it set out to do – raise awareness about Joseph Kony still being at large.

Since the video went live on 5 March, one of Kony’s LRA compatriots has been captured and more troops have been deployed to Central Africa to take part in the hunt for the warlord who is responsible for the murder, rape and slavery of men, women and children in Uganda.

Is that a coincidence?

Or does it mean that a campaign based on work carried out in front of a computer screen can actually be effective?

Nate Prosser of Clicktivist.org says “yes, online activism does work” but warns that it is not a replacement for “boots-on-the-ground activism”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he adds: “It won’t work in all cases…Clicktivism is a tool and like any other tool you’ll get the greatest effect when you use it appropriately.”

Another, more clear-cut, example of the “Internet coming together” happened in Canada recently with the #TellVicEverything campaign. In February, the country’s Public Safety minister Vic Toews introduced legislation that would have infringed on the online privacy of Canadians. He responded to criticism of the bill by equating opponents with child pornographers, spawning a grassroots campaign to flood his Twitter account with the banalities of everyday life.

The message was: “if he wants to invade our privacy, he will get just that and more.”

The hashtag #TellVicEverything started trending on Twitter and was quickly picked up by the media and other politicians. Thousands upon thousands of messages were directed at the Minister and since then the bill has died a quiet death.

As well as political engagement by ordinary citizens, the Internet campaign also brought some humour:

@ToewsVic I admit it, I shot JR on Dallas. #TellVicEverything
Hey @toewsvic sometimes I don’t wash my coffee cup between uses. Eek! #tellviceverything
RT @tinapittaway: The first lad to see my naked bosom told me I had “beautiful shoulders”. #TellVicEverything
@TowesVic I’m having lean ground turkey & peas for supper. Or did you already know that? #tellviceverything

Although there is proof that clicktivism can get results in some instances, it has fierce opponents.

Micah White, who coined the term in 2010, says that it is the “pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism” as it is “debased with advertising and computer science”.

He believes it relies too heavily on “measurable” approaches and not on the “vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of”.

The toolbox of clicktivism certainly includes marketing techniques

One criticism often laid out is that clicktivism is just dressed-up marketing and, indeed, its roots are strongly located in the capitalist’s tool.

White says that many (non-digital) activists “vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change”. Prosser believes that although its roots in marketing are clicktivism’s main downfall, they are also its greatest strength.

“The Internet can be quite fickle and anyone who works on online campaigns, be they commercial or activist, know how difficult it can be to gain and keep people’s attention. It’s hard to compete with videos of cute cats on YouTube. Because of this there is a pretty heavy reliance on marketing techniques,” he explains.

Many people cringe at this but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a way to deliver your message in a more effective way. This can go too far though. I think an important part of any sort of activism is the relaying the authenticity of your passion. It’s tempting to go to far into the minutia of marketing where your message becomes clinical and lacks soul.

There is a fine line then especially now given the professionalism of the the non-profit sphere.

“Advocating for a cause has always involved marketing – selling an idea…To a certain degree, clicktivism is the application of marketing techniques to activism,” adds Prosser. White goes further and says that an obsession with “tracking clicks” turns digital activism into something that has little to offer society.

Both, however, would agree that a campaign crosses a line if it becomes more about the methods and the measurable gains than the stated goal.

“The key is to keep the end goal in mind; garnering a million likes on Facebook is great but ultimately pointless if you can’t use that to achieve the change that you’re looking for,” continues Prosser.

And this is how the Kony 2012 campaign becomes so difficult to dissect.

Prosser believes it was “ultimately a flawed campaign that was executed superbly”. In the end, he sides with it because it demonstrated the potential clictivism has.

Invisible Children’s main aim was to get people talking about Uganda and Joseph Kony again. It did that. 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.

Prosser said:

If we can untangle some of the intertwined issues and problems – the ethnocentrism, ties to questionable groups, mental breakdowns, etc. – and judge the campaign strictly on whether it achieved its intended goals then I think we have to call it a success.
Invisible Children set out to get the world talking about Kony and they did – with a 30 minute long video.

The campaign was problematic – but not because of clictivism – he added.

Let’s go back to the beginning…

We’ve had a look at two campaigns that worked but what exactly is clictivism? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause”. Some believe it goes wider than this and include actions that happen as a result of online campaigning that support social change. A major example is the organisation of protests in the Middle East and North Africa last year as the Arab Spring kicked off.

One of the biggest companies in the world even got involved. Google and SayNow’s speak2tweet service could be labelled clicktivism as it allowed Egyptians communicate online to organise calls for social change. The companies developed a technology to allow people to tweet using just a voice connection as Internet connections were often disconnected and always sparse.

At the time, the product manager at Google and founder of SayNow – which Google had recently acquired – said:

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.

Petitions, boycotts and crowdfunding campaigns have also benefited from the online arms of their actions.

Three years ago, a supermarket in the US, Whole Foods, saw tens of thousands of people sign up to a boycott of their produce over remarks made by its CEO about Barack Obama’s healthcare reform. The company was forced to address the matter and issue a public response.

Ireland has its own clicktivist campaign earlier this year as Minister of State Seán Sherlock moved to introduce legislation which was dubbed Ireland’s SOPA.

StopSOPAIreland.com set up an online petition but also encouraged supporters to visit their TDs or call them up to complain about the “bad decision” to block certain ISPs.

Slacktivism IS related to clicktivism but it’s more like a distant, less-savvy first cousin

So some clicktivism can result in real action – or even if they fail – as in the SOPA case – they are genuine and substantial calls for action. Merely ‘liking’ something on Facebook, retweeting a sentiment or adding a name to a petition, however, can fit in with the dictionary definition of slacktivism:

actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social networking website

Although White doesn’t actually slap the derogatory term, slacktivism,  on all forms of  clicktivism, he does say that it “discourages calling for drastic action” and that it will “never breed social revolution”.

Prosser disagrees with anyone who brands all clicktivism as slacktivism, stating that they are “coming at it from the wrong angle”.

Slacktivism can be better defined as doing something that supports a social or political cause but requires the minimal amount of energy, time or effort. Recently, it has become equated to taking action online.

“Clicktivism and slacktivism are related but by no means the same thing…Clicktivism is the use of the Internet to facilitate social or political action. It’s easy to see how people can conflate the two but lumping clicktivists in with slacktivists is like calling anyone who signs a petition an activist,” explains Prosser, who has completed a dissertation on social media in politics and now currently works in online outreach for an NGO.

He believes that those who participate in online activism are also more likely to volunteer, donate money, contact government representatives and take part in events.

By joining a group on Facebook, although it won’t create a one-to-one relationship, it does indicate a greater level of engagement, argues Prosser.

Where does hactivism sit in all of this?

Much like slacktivism, hactivism is like an out-of-control sibling.

It often promotes the same ideals – using the Internet for social change but is more radical in its approach. It is also much more niche as not everyone knows how to organise a denial-of-service attack, nevermind a full-on hack.

In the past couple of years Anonymous has taken hacking to a whole new level, taking down websites belonging to the FBI and CIA, as well as major corporations including Mastercard and Visa.

Similar arguments to those made against clicktivism have also been levelled against hacktivism.

Its detractors say it can bee too frivilolous or not attached to a physical risk in the same way as a sit-in or protest is.

With a combination of clicktivism, slacktivism and hactivism, the online world can certainly – and quite easily – create havoc in the real world.

Read: Department says it received two emails in relation to ‘Kony 2012′ campaign>

Check out more of Nate Prosser’s musings on Clicktivist.org>

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