Online activists: revolution or click‑illusion?

By Laura Brummer

The increased power of individual consumers in light of the 'social media revolution' has been debated so many times it hardly seems like news.  Despite the rise of so called 'social media prophets' nobody seems fully able to decipher the impact that new technology has on consumer/corporation relationships.

Yet, within the noise of social media one trend can clearly be distinguished: viral politics.  From the rise of a  'pirate party'  in Sweden, dealing with net policy issues, to Kony 2012 and online shaming campaigns against corporations;  the last couple of years have undoubtedly been marked by a rise in political mobilisation online. NGO activism and physical protests are no longer the only way people can stand up against the practices of a company or organisation; rather they go online to support their cause.

Nevertheless, the effects of social media activists, on real life politics and the actual practices of companies, remains unclear. Do viral political movements have the same effect as actual ones? In that case, would we see the rise of a cyber civil society - where new, more demanding consumers and other stakeholders emerge, increasingly scrutinising the reputations of companies? Or, are we witnessing the emergence  of  so-called 'slacktivism', whereby people, instead of actually caring, can feel as if they are activists just by clicking on a like button or posting a tweet?

Shaming companies to act:  Cyber Civil Society

The online petition tool Change.org prides itself on empowering individuals by enabling them to start petitions against politicians, corporations or others.  Founded in 2007, the site now has 45 million users in 196 countries.

One successful campaign was carried out by a 22 year old nanny working two jobs, Molly Katchpole. Her petition, with over 300 000 followers, managed to persuade Bank of America (and eventually all other major American banks) to drop a $5 fee on debit cards. Even though Change.org gained recognition by empowering the 'Davids' of the world against the 'Goliaths', the platform is now developing a page where targets of petitions can defend themselves and respond to accusations.

Such tactics can also be witnessed in Public Eye's Shame Awards, where people vote online for companies with the 'worst practices' which are announced annually to coincide with Davos.  In 2014, Gazprom's drilling in the arctic and Gap's refusal to sign the accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh awarded them a joint first place.

Slacktivists without a cause

However,  even though digital evangelists praise social media's empowerment of individuals, one wonders how many of the individuals that participate in online activism can, or even want to,  make fundamental changes to society. 

Sure, US banks did lower their debit card fees; but could a more powerful and engaging activist campaign have evolved if the activists were vocally and physically present? Are  people just becoming lazy, thinking that they are involved in a social cause just by starting at a screen and making a click?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, online petitions carried out on platforms such as Change.org are classic casesof slacktivsim whereby young people today do not feel the need or urge to physically participate in a cause and feel content just by checking a box on a petition sent to them by one of their Facebook friends.  Comparing slacktivism to real activism, such as the violent protests in the 1960s civil-rights movement in the American South, he claims that many people today have forgotten the real purpose and value of activism. 

Gladwell also argues that whereas political activism of the past was carried out by people with strong personal involvement who were willing to risk their lives for a cause, people today do not need to risk anything, personal or financial.  Further, he asserts that as no personal sacrifices needs to be involved in online activism, the weaker ties between participants are likely to produce weaker results.

In a nutshell, even though online activists may be able to shame a company and force transparency on one specific issue, the causes are often arbitrary and do not necessarily illuminate the bigger picture.  

Revolution or Click-illusion? 

Gladwell may be right that online slacktivists will not cause a revolution. However, their power should not be underestimated. In today's hyper-connected world, simple clicks, likes, and shares will generate newsworthy stories.  Regardless of the actual cause, awareness and speed increases while distance shrinks.  

Moreover, cyber Civil Society can act as an even bigger enabler of change. For example, the Arab Spring (which has gone well beyond the slacktivist paradigm) was not caused per se by social media, but it did provide a very significant organisational platform that enabled the most remarkable period of political change in the region for decades. 

The detached activism of today can sometimes have unintended and unwanted effects as well.   The 2012 Kony campaign is a somewhat worrying example. The 30 minute video was the greatest viral success of all time. With 100 million views in 6 days, it put a previously relatively unknown dictator, Joseph Kony, and his atrocities, in the limelight, something NGOs, diplomats and others had failed to do for years.  Yet, the video depicted an outdated, skewed and paternalistic view of the conflict in Uganda.  Most of the slacktivists, however, were too absorbed in the idea of doing something effortlessly good, to investigate this fact.

In fact, some would claim that slacktivists are actually doing more harm than good.  Studies show that people who support a charity group on Facebook are actually less likely to support the cause financially.

Some companies have already acknowledged these facts. In Sweden, for instance, UNICEF built a recent campaign on this insight, with a large advertisement advocating the message that "Likes don't save children's lives. We need money to buy vaccines."

Lessons learned

Taken overall, there are several key lessons to be learned from the story of slacktivists and the potential emergence of a cyber civil society.  

First, there is clearly a trend towards increased scrutiny and demand for transparency of companies. Slacktivists could easily raise awareness of bad practices: even if they are not always too involved in a cause. 

Such awareness can seriously harm a company's reputation.  The fact that slacktivists are often too lazy to get passionately involved will not hinder viral success, as the Kony2012 video illustrates This makes it more important than ever for companies to be pro-active with their reputations and not just sit back and wait for a backlash.

It is also clear that Cyber Civil Society can provide a platform for companies to be proactive.  By starting petitions against causes that are aligned with their corporate or CSR strategy for example, or funding a campaign by a third party for a cause they believe in, companies can be ahead of the curve and take the lead in mitigating reputation risk from information that goes viral. 

Secondly, however, even if companies use cyber civil society to be proactive, they need to be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that likes and clicks translate into actual actions. Sometimes, the desire of slacktivists to get involved is fulfilled with a simple click. The implication is that the gap needs to be bridged between click and action, slacktivism and actual passion. 

Conclusively, the slacktivism movement should not be entirely dismissed. Even if much of it lacks capacity to instigate fundamental change, it has growing power as more people learn to organise themselves online through tools like change.org, and join the dots with previously disconnected networks.  

At the heart of this is individual empowerment. The slacktivism movement is enabling the masses to act in  spaces that have traditionally been the preserve of organisations like NGOs, trade unions, and consumer advocacy groups.  Slowly, but surely, this mobilisation is paving the way towards the creation of a a cyber civil society which, for good and bad, will have potentially far-reaching implications for all of us.

 

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