The narrative of the damaging role played by ‘clicktivism’, or online activism, is well established, and only intensifying as the likes of Change.org, 38 Degrees and Avaaz gain prominence. It focuses on the illusory nature of online actions as a force for change, allowing those who do them to comfort themselves that they’ve played a part in changing the world, with just one click.
For some critics, the ease of the actions involved in online activism delegitimise them from the start – surely campaigning should be about blood, sweat and tears, not something that can be done from the comfort of your front room. But, while that is often a matter of opinion (and possibly generational), the more interesting criticisms focus less on the action and more on the impact of online activism: firstly, that petitions and other types of online activism achieve little; secondly, that they fool us into thinking we are having an impact, often simply for the good of our ego; and thirdly, that they substitute for more meaningful forms of engagement.
This blog was prompted by hearing more and more about the impact of successful online petitions: we thought it was time to stand up for their role in social change.
Firstly, it’s clear that petitions do have an impact on the issues they take on. Looking down the list of successful petitions on the 38 Degrees website, there are a range of impressive victories: some more small scale and local, others potentially much more impactful: around bringing back bottle deposits for example. The same for change.org. Often it’s not just the petition that lands this change, but the noise created by it, the media coverage, the support by sympathetic MPs and so on. The petition provides the groundswell, and the legitimacy of public support, to get issues onto the national stage.
Addressing the second criticism, that they fool us into thinking we are having an impact: well, many of the campaigners we speak to over the course of our research would refute this implication that the wool is being pulled over their eyes. They tell us that they know petitions rarely achieve their stated aims, but this isn’t always the point: instead, signing petitions and being part of online cause groups is about adding their voice to the things they believe in. Indeed, many talk about the ability of online campaigns to cohere the views of like-minded people as a key source of strength for them in the face of an increasingly divided and violent society.
As to whether they substitute for more meaningful engagement? From what we see in our research, it’s often the case that the people who engage online are also those generally doing more: getting out and helping people, volunteering, donating and so forth. Whether they’d be doing even more of all that if they weren’t signing petitions is a counterfactual that’s challenging to prove, but it certainly feels as if online activism can complement, rather than substitute for, wider engagement offline.
What’s more, the values that campaigns promote may even trigger future action. Many of the most successful petitions we see on the likes of change.org are rooted in a deep concern for others, and for the natural world. Common Cause, the 2010 publication which makes the case for working with frames and values teaches us: “Even if a campaign is unsuccessful, it will have impacts on the prevalence of particular values and deep frames – because people will see the campaign materials and unconsciously respond to the deep frames that these enshrine.” They provide evidence that individuals and cultures with stronger values of universalism and benevolence – i.e. exactly those values inherent to many campaigns – are more concerned with global issues, less prejudiced, more likely to buy fair trade products and engage in environmentally friendly behaviours. In short, simply getting these values out there into the world is likely to drive further positive action.
Clearly, online campaigns alone aren’t going to change the world. But they may have a much more powerful role than many give them credit for.