Clicktivism: How passive online activism has changed the face of politics — and maybe not for the better
Organizations such as Change.org and 38 Degrees are putting online activism centre stage. But do they encourage people to passively click in support of a cause rather than taking action?
Since the last general election in 2010, participation in digital campaigning has grown significantly. Six million people in the UK have signed or started a digital petition on Change.org, a global website with headquarters in San Francisco, which launched in April 2012. And 3 million people in the UK are members of 38 Degrees, a web-based activist organisation founded in memory of the late campaigner and founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick.
The rise of “clicktivism”, as it is often termed because people can support a cause at the click of a computer mouse, comes as membership of traditional campaigning organisations such as political parties and trade unions is at an all-time low. Less than 1% of the electorate – some 360,000 people – is a member of one of the three main political parties; a quarter of what party membership was 30 years ago. And only a quarter of the UK’s workforce now belongs to a trade union; half of the 13 million members in 1979. Yet according to the annual British Social Attitudes survey, interest in politics is on the rise. In 1986, 29% of people said they were interested in politics either a “great deal” or “quite a lot”. In 2012, this had increased to 36%. And as the 84.6% turnout at the Scottish referendum last week demonstrated, there is a huge appetite for politics.
John Coventry, Change.org’s communications director, puts his organisation’s rapid growth down to “stories of Davids and Goliaths – human stories of justice and fairness”. However, he is insistent that its 6 million people are “users, not members”. There is no manifesto and no central campaign direction, he points out: it is a campaigning tool, not a movement.
According to the organisation, of the 1,500 petitions started in the UK every month, almost 800 have achieved their desired outcome; the majority with less than 200 signatures. One such success story is that of Phill Wills and his son Josh. Two years ago Josh, 11, who has severe autism, was moved from the Royal Cornwall hospital – where he had been cared for because his behaviour had become unmanageable at home – to an assessment and treatment unit hundreds of miles away in Birmingham. NHS Kernow, a clinical commissioning group (CCG) in Cornwall, said it was not possible to provide the level of care that Josh needed near home. His parents have spent every weekend of the last two years travelling the 500-mile round trip required to see him. Josh has never met his baby sister.
In March, following advice from charity Mencap, Josh’s father launched a petition on Change.org. Within two days, 10,0000 people had signed up and the family was on the phone to Nory Menneer, the clinical lead and programme manager for people with learning disabilities at the CCG. Three days later Wills was in a meeting with the CCG’s chief executive, who appointed Menneer as a point of liaison for the family and commissioned a person-centred plan for Josh. Wills says Menneer has since become “a rock” for the family. Kernow CCG has since negotiated a care package with a local provider. The family has met care minister Norman Lamb and believes that Josh will be home in the new year.
Wills says he has never been interested in politics or campaigning, but he now wants to launch a campaign to help other families in his position. “I was afraid to speak out,” he says. “I don’t like to rock the boat – but the petition changed everything within a week. I’d do anything to stop other families going through the same experience.”
Like Change.org, 38 Degrees has also had some notable victories. One of its big successes early on was the campaign to help stop England’s publicly owned forests and woodland from being privatised. In 2011, half a million people put their name to its petition forcing the then environment secretary Caroline Spelman to do a U-turn.
“I guess you might call that a eureka moment,” says 38 Degrees chief executive David Babbs. “I was praised as a strategic genius – but it was our members who had spotted the opportunity, not me. I just followed organisational principles. In fact, I was baffled when I saw they were champing at the bit to run a campaign on forests – I live in inner London and hadn’t been in a forest in quite a while. It just goes to show that many heads are better than one.”
“One of the weird things about being CEO of 38 Degrees is that I don’t actually get to decide about what we campaign on,” he adds. In contrast to Change.org, Babbs can’t stop talking about members. The organisation is now 100% funded by its members. The average donation is £11. “There is a very strong line of accountability between us and our members. If we stop running the campaigns they ask us to, they stop donating and we can’t pay our wages, ” says Babbs, who has been obsessed with people power since marching against the Iraq war.
But the effectiveness of “clicktivism”, which also includes people supporting charities by liking them on Facebook, has been criticised by politicians and charity ambassadors. MPs complain that it is not possible to deal with the “spam” – the volume of unsolicited phone calls and emails they receive. Some, such as Julian Lewis Conservative MP, for New Forest East, have closed their email accounts altogether and insist that voters write to them. And Danielle de Niese, a leading opera singer and ambassador for the International Rescue Committee has accused Facebook users of failing to grasp how much more they could do to help than by just passive clicking.
“Most politicians are suspicious of 38 Degrees,” says Babbs. “Each of the three main parties have accused us of being in the back pocket of the others. They can’t believe our members haven’t been put up to it from someone inside the self-absorbed Westminster bubble – they think we are muscling in on their territory. Political parties are about central control and toeing the party line; we are about people making their own mind up and persistently knocking on the door of those in power.”
He rejects the clicktivism label and denies that online activism can act as a displacement activity for deeper engagement. “Where is the evidence that it [online activism] doesn’t work?”I don’t see it. Go and take a walk in a forest that would have been sold off.
That critique is dangerously elitist – as if you have to earn your stripes as an activist. If you believe in democracy, surely the easier it is to participate in the better. That’s the power of the internet.”
Interestingly, one change that members are asking for is for the movement to do more campaigning offline. As part of its recent campaign against the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, 38 Degrees experimented with a mapping tool to help interested members find others close by. Some 600 local groups were formed. Volunteers organised events – mostly public stalls – and went out in the streets leafleting, asking people to sign petitions and knocking on doors. Others spoke to the local press.
But doesn’t this sound suspiciously like the actions of a political party? “I wouldn’t know – I’ve never been part of one,” Babbs replies. “We don’t have a manifesto.” 38 Degrees does, however, have its values painted on the ceiling of its office: democracy, peace, human rights, community, fairness, equality and sustainability.
Change.org is developing “decision makers”, a digital tool that allows companies or elected representatives to respond directly by email to the people who have signed a petition. The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, recently used it for the first time to respond to the campaign to reunite Asyha King with his parents. The mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, is a big fan and has already responded to 46 petitions this way.
Brie Rogers Lowery, the UK director of Change.org, says: “The internet has created the biggest citizen megaphones ever, but not the headphones to help MPs listen and engage. But decision makers is creating a two-way dialogue with the public. Unlike a press release or social media post, the message ends up in the inbox of people who have already said they care about an issue, rather than broadcasting the message in the hope that some of the right people will see it.”
The Electoral Reform Society is positive about the role digital campaigning can play in participatory democracy. “There’s a huge amount of energy and excitement around digital campaigning, which shows that the problem with falling trust in representative politics is not one of apathy. Traditional representative politics is failing to adapt fully to the modern world,” says spokesman Will Brett. “Digital campaigning shouldn’t be seen as a threat but as a challenge.”
The House of Commons is exploring how it can learn from developments in the digital world to become more effective in creating laws, scrutinising government and engaging citizens. ItsCommission on Digital Democracy, launched last November by the speaker, John Bercow, is taking evidence from organisations, experts and the general public and will make recommendations in January.
Peter Stokes, deputy director of operations for Kernow CCG, is in no doubt that digital campaigning had a significant impact on its decision to relocate Josh Wills. He says: “Petitions can help stimulate debate between organisations. This petition re-energised our commitment to work together to find a swift resolution.”
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