Looking at clicktivism

Hi, all!  This is Molly Sauter, blogging under the handle oddletters.  You can find me on Twitter (@oddletters) or blogging on the Center for Civic Media blog and my personal blog.  My research is in the areas of internet culture and policy, hacktivism, and dissident modes of political engagement online.  I’m writing my Master’s thesis (in the Comparative Media Studies program) on the crossover spaces between IRL activism and transgressive digital activism and issues of identity, anonymity and pseudonymity that crop up.

I was very interested in the efforts in this week’s readings to build analytical structures with which to look at digital activism.  A recurring topic in discussions of networked activism is the concept of “clicktivism” or “slacktivism.”  In the Peaceworks report we read for this week, this was referred to as “cheap talk,” and illustrated with the example of individuals on Twitter turning their user icons green to show their support for the democratic elections in Iran.  The green Twitter icon is a ubiquitous example of this type of passive action, which cost the actor little and contributes in now meaningful way to cause being “supported.”

I’d like to unpack this clicktivism/slacktivism concept as it was described in our readings, using some of the frameworks from the Peaceworks report.  The report presents five levels of analysis through which new media activism could be understood: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime politics, and external attention.  In looking at clicktivism, I’d like to focus on the first two levels, individual transformation and intergroup relations.

Clicktivism is often condemned for being “cheap,” meaningless in the long run, overly motivated by market logics,  and unfocused.  Some of the more vocal critics include Malcolm Gladwell and the magazine Adbusters.  This would be meaningful criticisms if clicktivism were replacing more active/present activism.  I question whether this is the case.  In the case of the turn-your-twitter-icon-green example, it would be worth figuring out who those individuals were who were participating.  Were they Iranians who participated in lieu of taking part in other protest actions? If they were predominantly not Iranians, as anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest, then the question of what meaningful alternatives were available becomes a central one.  What if the options were not “participate in something easy and cheap” or “participate in something meaningful,” but rather “participate in something easy and cheap” or “participate in nothing at all”?

It is easier now to access foreign news than it has ever been in human history.  Tracing the drama of an election on the other side of the world is trivial, having a real political effect on that election is not.  I question how much the intention of these actions is not to effect noticeable change on a situation but rather to manifest a show of support for a cause publicly, much like a bumper sticker or yard signs.  These visual tags, especially when present on a socially-networked space like Twitter or Facebook, could serve as a mode of awareness outreach and linking, especially when combined with social sharing of content and news reports.  These tags also serve a role in digital identity construction.  Low level participation, publicly as with visual tags or privately through other mechanisms, may lead to greater levels of participation in other activist actions, both abroad and closer to home.  An empirical study tracing this type of follow-through would be useful when considering the value of clicktivism.

This brings me back to the two analytical levels I pulled out of the Peaceworks framework: individual transformation and intergroup relations. Choosing not to view clicktivism and other forms of passive activism in contrast with more active forms of activism means that we can consider how these forms enable individuals who, for various reasons, cannot contribute to a conflict in a more active way.  Does clicktivism encourage more passive modes of activism, such as self-education and information-spreading through linking and social sharing? Does it promote the creation of social groups of sympathy to further facilitate such activities?  This analysis also leads us to more central questions about the nature of passive activism.  This analysis does not mean that we shouldn’t consider hard central questions of passive activism.  Activism which is primarily of value to the actor, and stands to bear no influence on the topic at hand should be examined to determine that it isn’t draining resources from other, more active modes of activism.  But as the internet exposes us to many issues which we, for various reasons are not positioned to have an effect one yet still feel (and are in many ways encouraged to feel) strongly about, the practices of passive activism should not be dismissed as valueless out of hand.

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