Is ‘Clicktivism’ Helpful or Harmful to Achieving the 2030 SDG Agenda?
From the sea of blue profile photos, that people have recently been posting on social media platforms to show support and solidarity for those in Sudan to pressing the ‘Retweet’ button on Twitter when a tweet really strikes a chord – are these actions truly considered authentic forms of political engagement? It is indisputable that these actions and similar acts can have some political subtext, but opinions on whether they truly constitute ‘political engagement’ remain divided.
In the digital era, most things are just a click away, we can order food through an app without engaging with another human, we can even meet our potential life partner without stepping out of the comfort of our homes – it’s not surprising that we are trying to automate and digitalise political engagement. But is clicktivism truly a form of activism? And if it’s not how can we shift our acts of clicktivism to actual activism in order to mobilise maximum political engagement and meet the 2030 SDG Agenda. To answer this question, it’s first important to set out what is meant by ‘Clicktivism’; one definition of clicktivism is “the practice of supporting a political or social cause via the Internet by means such as social media or online petitions.” However, clicktivism is not limited to passive support; it can include a range of digital activities that facilitate social change.
I’m a British millennial, working as a digital communications consultant and for the most part, I consider myself to be a liberal feminist, with a desire to see the world become a better and place for all people. I’ve retweeted politically charged tweets, shared persuasive articles on my Facebook feed, clicked like on empowering quotes on Instagram, and I even create digital advocacy content around mental health, gender equality, respectful relationships, intimate partner violence, and reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health for my job. However, like many people who would attest to possessing some of these attributes – I have never written a letter to my local member of parliament, never organised or taken part in a political march, nor have I engaged a stranger into a conversation about a worthwhile cause. So, do I actually care? Anxious and riddled with feelings of guilt, I began researching clicktivism. At that point I did not have a particular word or phrase to coin this behaviour pattern, I remember typing various things into my Google search from millennial activism to digital politics, till I finally stumbled upon an article on Guardian website entitled How 'clicktivism' has changed the face of political campaigns. After reading it I became consciously aware of clicktivism.
The online organisation, Clicktivist, asserts that the dictionary definition of clicktivism is too myopic, believing that it also helps in “facilitating social change and activism.” The organisation catalogues the ways in which clicktivism has advanced the agenda of important social movements, for example, the 25th January Revolution in Egypt, which according to Wired, was accelerated by social media, “helping to organise the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanise international support.” The rise of clicktivism coincides with digital advancement and over the past two decades it has become the new normal; “clicktivism really became apparent in the mid-2000s when social advocacy groups began to use networked communication to mobilise large groups of users around social critical issues. It was shortly after this first wave that we saw more and more groups of all varieties using online activism more frequently, which I would argue is when it became more ‘mainstream’ than it had previously been framed—typically mainstream because of the broad groups of users the activity was then attracting.”
If you google the word ‘clicktivism’ another word that generally always emerges is: Slacktivism. This is defined as “the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, or online petitions characterised as involving very little effort or commitment.” Which lead me to reflect and honestly ask myself, am I using the simplicity of pressing a few buttons to be a part of the conversation, lukewarm and with no real dedication, or conversely, is a simple attempt at social and political realisation better than none at all? The truth for me was yes; a step in the right direction is better than a step backwards or no step at all. However, for those who are capable of doing more and consider themselves to be social and politically conscious, why should they sell themselves short? In the grand scheme of things, clicking like on a tweet does little more than trigger Twitter’s algorithm to raise the visibility of the post; but if we are able to lobby a government official, mobilise our audiences to an event, or to sign a petition, then it is effective. That is when it really hit me that digital activism is only worthwhile when users engage beyond the exposure to the social media post.
As with traditional forms of media, social media has a lot of power and can shine a huge spotlight on an issue, for example when a hashtag trends or an influencer champions a cause. However, even with all the numbers pointing towards a successful campaign, the true intention and quality of the message cannot always be upheld – when we publish something on social media it’s free for all, to interpret as they see fit. Campaigns can run the risk of losing their impact as they become diluted by users who align broader issues with the original concept. You can see clear examples of this when you look at popular social media movements of today, #BlackLivesMatter & #MeToo have become catch-all hashtags for a multitude of issues beyond their specific original intentions of raising awareness about police brutality and killings of African American men and the latter raising awareness about sexual assault in the workplace. When this happens, it allows decision-makers and people in power to cherry-pick the parts they find most appealing and ignore the parts that they do not align with. It can also alienate the original group or issue the movement was meant to focus on.
If we want to meet the 2030 SDG agenda, essentially what activism comes down to today, is parallel to clicktivism. We must choose causes that resonate most with us, and we cannot simply show support of these causes on our social media platforms, but we must also think about actionable ways that we can foster change. The actions and changes do not have to be large, micro-activism and slow and steady results are just as effective and often more sustainable long-term. Activism and clicktivism are similar in many ways, you could be on the street advocating for a cause and hand someone a leaflet and they won’t read it, much like how you can share a post on Facebook and someone could scroll right past it. The difference between a successful movement and an unsuccessful is how the core messages are communicated – it is not enough for us to arrest someone’s attention momentarily; we, must turn our mindless clicktivism into strategic activism to secure their buy-in.
By Ony Anukem