Is digital campaigning just ‘clicktivism’?


Digital campaigning has been an undoubted success, but can it move beyond mere clicktivism?


Digital campaigning’s growing influence over policymakers means that it is rapidly rising up the political agenda. Petitions on issues as wide-ranging as Steven Hestor’s bonus, to the selloff of national forests, have made full use of social media advances. It is the biggest innovation in campaigning since the introduction of television advertising in the early 1990s. Given the success these campaigns have seen, it is natural to talk about their future implications. And there are several warning signs NGOs can take from this rapidly evolving field.

Democracy is a powerful word and when harnessed for marketing purposes, the impact can be huge.

Participation is vital to campaigning and ever increasing use of the internet has given tremendous opportunities to campaigners. However, participation is not the only principle at stake here, transparency is also crucial to the democratic process. Knowing how – and who – filters campaigns is just as important as the campaigns themselves.

There are three concerns facing the future of digital campaigning organisations relating to these issues. Frustratingly though, these do include a couple of ‘isms’.

1. Filtering

New digital campaign organisations differ from traditional NGOs in that they try to channel public opinion directly. The stated aim is for democratic user-driven content, in contrast to traditional NGOs who have specific focuses and goals, such as Oxfam’s commitment to female empowerment.

However, while campaigns may be user-driven, an important role is played by those collecting and distributing the information to users about any given cause. Understanding how issues are marketed (and indeed accepting the fact that social issues are marketed) is crucial to evaluating the success of a particular campaign.

Knowing how this is done, and who does it, is vital for institutional transparency. It is important to see organisations as entities in themselves not just mouthpieces for their millions of users.

2. Clicktivism

Reducing the barriers to participation, by putting it a click away, can make participation exceedingly simple. On the other hand, it has also become just as simple to click delete to mass emails and petitions. Indeed Survival International argue that the power of a letter is still greater than that of an e-mail.

“E-mail addresses change and fax machines get unplugged. If you can, please post your letter.”
They feel the people they support in Botswana or the Amazon will benefit more from a letter as it requires a greater degree of effort. Campaigning should be more than a host of vague clicks. Mass support is crucial but it should not come at the expense of more effective activities.

3. Reductionism

Even as I write, the back of my mind has to account for the one minute (ish) attention span of the average web browser. It is somewhat ironic having to argue against overly reduced debates and in favour of more scrutiny, with additional complexity, in such a time constrained format. Reductionism though is a facet of clicktivism.

Many issues covered by digital campaigners are large scale reforms with multiple points of view. Distilling these down and remaining politically effective is a difficult task to achieve. As such, overly reduced content can prove to be an unaccountable filter in many organisations.

These issues need to be addressed primarily because digital campaigning is not going away. More than this though, these organisations will be vital policy institutions in the future. However, flaws in transparency and an overreliance on clicktivism have the potential to squander a terrific opportunity to affect real change in the world.

In essence the policy successes exhibited by organisations such as Avaaz need be complimented by a maturing of the sector. In reality this means facing up to the fact that these organisations have a hierarchy. There is a filtering process and once this is accepted a move towards transparency can take place.

Clearly digital campaigning is not a panacea; though it does give an insight into the future of campaigning, meaning traditional NGOs need to take note of how these organisations achieve results. However, with increasing amounts of people looking to the mouse, rather than the placard, now seems like an appropriate time to push for greater transparency within this new campaigning space.

Photo credit: ekeiram

Author: Nicholas Colloff
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.