The ins and outs of online protest
post by Georgia Kenington
Globally, many different types and forms of protest are cropping up – from university strikes throughout the UK (which I’m sure we are well acquainted with), global organisations like the Global Justice Movement and Occupy!, to e-petitions and clicktivism on the other end of the scale. Protesting is quickly becoming the publics’ go-to tool for getting our voices heard, and the accessibility is there for everyone.
The Internet has been a revolutionary tool – in all senses of the word – for activists around the globe. It’s easy to see the significant results produced from events like the Women’s March 2017 (garnering around 4 million marchers in the US alone)… but can we say the same for online protest? e-Democracy and online activism have quickly become the most wide-scale and accessible forms of protest, but with how mainstream they’ve become, do people even take them seriously anymore?
e-Petitioning has made a name for itself as one of the heavyweights of online protesting, with websites such as change.org and 38degrees gaining a lot of momentum, as well as the UK Government even having its own petitioning website, including causes such as ending caged hen egg sales, to having a second referendum on Brexit. There have been over 230 million signatures on change.org alone. But the number of ‘victories’ in comparison to this is… lacking. Despite millions of signatures, none of these campaigns got what they were asking for, calling their legitimacy into question. Can e-Petitions really be called a form of protest or participation if they do not achieve results? However, we may be looking for ‘results’ in the wrong places. ‘Success’ has been defined as the target of the petition being reformed in the way the petition outlines it to do so, ‘in most cases, however, the perceived success was because of a much broader definition of success than having an impact on policy’ (Wright, 2016), with petitions achieving things such as increased publicity, raised awareness and increased confidence in the movement.
Another form of online protest is what’s referred to as ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ – which encompasses a lot of online actions, namely participating in social/political change movements through social media, sharing/liking posts, and organising events etc. Many think clicktivism is a farce, an easy way for people to feel like they’re achieving something, when in fact the results are minor – if any at all. It is seen as a ‘slack’ form of participating; something so easy and convenient that people don’t hold it in any kind of regard. Although this may be the case – that the specific action in itself does not have much impact – the critics of this form of activism are, again, considering ‘success’ too narrowly. ‘Longstanding concerns about the possible perverse incentives underlying such “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” make the mistake of treating such actions as a single-minded campaign effort, rather than as an individual tactic within a broader strategic mobilization effort.’ (Karpf, 2010) Karpf is essentially saying that people view ‘clicktivism’ incredibly negatively, without taking into account the fact that these small, ‘insignificant’ actions are actually part of something bigger. They are a ‘first step in a ladder of engagement’ (Karpf, 2010), and serve to enfranchise people who may not usually be accustomed to participating in this kind of movement. The idea is that everybody uses Facebook, and this easy, safe, and friendly form of getting people motivated could lead to further action (like attending a rally or writing to an MP), and achieve ‘real’ results. But you have to start somewhere, and these small acts of online activism are a great place to do so.
Considering e-Democracy and online activism as a whole, even if the direct outcomes of these actions alone aren’t substantial, they have a knock-on effect. People feel like they’re participating, like they’re making a change, and feel good about their own activism, which prompts further attempts at activism, and may go on to produce ‘real’ change. And even so, ‘real’ change does come directly from online activism. Campaigners have achieved such feats as keeping females on bank notes, and nominating Malalai Joya for a Nobel Peace Prize off the back of e-Petitions. So it can, and does work. This extract from the Government’s statement in regard to e-Democracy tools shows the power and momentum these movements are gaining: ‘Using the incredible power of tools like Twitter and Change.org individuals who have never considered themselves campaigners or identified as ‘political’ are challenging the institutions that govern their communities, cities regions and countries’.
It appears that, through all their criticism, many widely agree that these forms of e-Democracy and online protest are working, and are a natural progression of our modern society. If they are working to get people motivated, to get people participating, and to show the people at the top that we have a voice, then who is anybody to say they’re not producing real results. As the internet community continues to expand, the future possibilities of e-Democracy and online protest are endless, and new ways to inform people and gather support are likely to be subject to the same kinds of criticism.
But it’s important to remember that no matter how much negativity surrounds your actions, any form of activism, no matter on what scale, is still activism. The opportunities to aid your cause are always there, and whether your style is picketing outside Parliament, or sharing a video on Facebook, we can all be part of the worldwide wave of protest.
Karpf, David (2010) “Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism,” Policy & Internet: Vol. 2: Iss. 4, Article 2.
Scott Wright (2016) ‘Success’ and online political participation: The case of Downing Street E-petitions, Information, Communication & Society, 19:6, 843-857