“Clicktivism” – really? Is that a thing now?
Well, apparently it is, and if you haven’t heard about it, chances are, you probably haven’t done it. Maybe you’re ignorant, maybe you’re simply too cynical, or you don’t know the internet (in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this). Except for the ignorance part, these reasons are perfectly excusable in a society in which political action often seems futile or even counter-productive.
“Clicktivism”, on the other hand, sounds genius: all you have to do is sit in front of your computer, which many of us do anyway, and share some Youtube videos, “like” some Facebook pages and type your name under pre-written letters, petitions, flyers – voilà – you’ve just made the world a better place!
The cynic in me feels compelled to think: Surely things can’t be this easy! They never are.
But why not? Politics doesn’t always have to be difficult. The most basic political action in our democracies is as easy as putting a little cross next to a name. The process of voting is so simple, yet it is politics. In fact, I would even go so far as to state that everything you do is political anyway: having a debate with your mum is political, deciding to have one child instead of two is political, sharing your thoughts online is a political act (albeit a sometimes dangerous one).
The question is whether or not these actions are followed by the desired results. I can rant all day about politics on social media; that in and of itself does not bring forth systemic change. Neither does voting. But that doesn’t mean it can’t make a difference.
“Clicktivism” can make a difference. It works, that is, when applied to the right goals. Look at the power of feminist uses of social media, look at the temporary prevention of ACTA. ACTA is an interesting case, because even though it did require offline activism to be brought to a temporary halt; the German government backed down even before the actual physical protests took place. “Clicktivism” can also raise awareness of issues that would otherwise go unnoticed, for example the anti-LGBT laws in Russia and Uganda.
Speaking of Uganda: make no mistake. Simply “raising awareness” can also go wrong and lead to rather misguided forms of activism, as illustrated by the recent KONY 2012 phenomenon. A bunch of young, well-connected guys with a (questionable) charity had the idea to spread the word about an injustice, and through the use of social media they created a world-wide (well, Western-wide) outcry about a man whose name most people had never heard of before. All of a sudden, teens and students who had never protested before and barely read the news, demanded governmental, even military, action to hunt this man down, a man who surely deserves to be punished, but why turn him into a 2012 Hitler?
The power of “clicktivism”? Hardly. The power of misinformation is more like it. The motivations and means of this political activist stunt have been questioned, and justifiably so; the attention brought to this case has been analyzed as potentially doing more damage than good (for a collection of criticisms directed at Invisible Children, the charity responsible for KONY 2012, see here). All the while people’s Facebook walls are plastered with a video and badges about a conflict they’ve had no other access to than this biased and ill-informing “campaign” (Campaign for what, one might ask. Ironically, the slogan of the video, website and Facebook page, even merchandise, is “KONY 2012”, not “Stop KONY”.)
But really, who can blame them? Everyone would like to do something good, and contribute at least their small part to make this world a tiny bit more just. Who has time to do in-depth research whenever a petition pops up online and the cause seems important? Who makes the effort to drag their ass to a protest, to an activist organisation? Who wants to sit around freezing in a tent all day and be sprayed with pepper spray?
I agree with Angry Black Lady on this one: there are people who do just that and people who don’t, and those who don’t can at least do something by supporting those who are doing all the work for them, ideally including proper research. I don’t want to let anyone off the hook. People in the position to do so, have a responsibility to educate themselves. I will always support organizations and individuals who stimulate rather than discourage or detract from these ambitions, even if that means simplifying the message somewhat, but at some point the strategy has to go beyond the “Starbucks charity logic“.
After all, those who do engage in offline activism have always been going the extra mile and will continue to do so. They will write manifestos at night, they will gather in smelly classrooms to organize, they will risk their reputation, their commodities, their security and even their health to continue the fight. The option of signing petitions online is not going to change that. The so-called “Twitter revolution” in Tunisia was still fought in the streets.