In the past few years, we have seen a number of social media campaigns, from Invisible Children’s 2012 Kony campaign, to the more recent “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag. What exactly is “clicktivism”, and what are they trying to achieve?
Clicktivism is generally held to mean activity largely undertaken on social media whose purpose is to raise awareness or produce change. Some critics of clicktivism suggest that it also means such activity undertaken for the self-gratification of the person engaged in that activity, because—given the role of social media in clicktivism—people’s activity defines their online identity. I think this is a bit limited though. A recent article in the academic journal Policy and Internet gives probably the most complete definition I have come across. The author, Max Halupka, outlines the defining features of clicktivism. For me, the most important of these are that clicktivism, is impulsive – it is a response to something encountered online rather than a considered political act like voting or marching. It’s also non-committal, meaning that by itself it doesn’t require any further action from the ‘clicktivist’ – you can just click like and you are done, as far as a clicktivist campaign is concerned. This means that clicktivism is not specialised: anyone with a basic online skill set can do it. Because it is so basic, it can be easily replicated – and that is the point of a clicktivist campaign: it is about getting as many people as possible to repeat the same action over and over. Importantly, clicktivism is about a particular political object – a person or a decision—rather than an ideology. I think this is why people sometimes dismiss it as meaningless: clicktivism is not generally thought of as part of a larger political ideology, just a small, non-risky, one-off act.
Using the above two examples, we can see that these types of social media campaigns are not always successful. Kony is still free, and the girls remain in captivity. Are they trying to get tangible results, or is the aim more to raise awareness?
I think the campaign organisers behind #Kony 2012 and #Freeourgirls were certainly intending to bring about actual change, but saw awareness raising as a route to those results. Sometimes, if you are targeting an international (Western) audience, awareness raising can actually lead to tangible results – if enough people pressure the right parliamentarian or congressperson, or a certain number of them, then actual results may emerge, given the powerful role Western actors play in global politics. It’s only the beginning of a very long road, though. For me, clicktivism can mean more than social media campaigns – it can also include e-petitions, for example, and these can sometimes be more immediately effective. Change.org.uk, for example, says that of the 1500 petitions started in the UK every month, almost 800 have achieved their outcomes – the majority with less than 200 signatures. Petitions of this sort have a very clear outcome, and involve very clear actors – so for example, you might have an e-petition to fund a local hospital in a particular way. Because the outcomes and actors and processes are clearer than in big, international social media campaigns, then this sort of clicktivism might be more effective.
As an awareness raising tool, are these campaigns successful? Or does it lead to public compassion fatigue when participating in social media campaigns doesn’t lead to real-world change?
I think that it depends what you mean by ‘success’. #Kony2012, for example, was part of a much larger organising campaign, Invisible Children, which had been organising around issues to do with the Congo conflict for years, amongst young people in the US. The organisation, for better or worse, has built a community in the US which many judge as cohesive and committed around Kony and associated issues. This may not be success in terms of Kony’s release, but it is some form of activist success. There hasn’t been any research done on compassion fatigue and social media campaigns, but I imagine the problem would be the same as any media-driven awareness raising campaign–there is a limit to how much individuals can consume. In terms of social media campaigns, though, I think the problem is a little bit more complex, though. If you ‘like’ something or change your profile pic, then you are shaping your online identity in a particular way by affiliating yourself with this cause. What happens if you do this repeatedly, or with a different cause every other week? This isn’t really compassion fatigue, but something else – identification fatigue?
How can social media tools be best used to bring about change?
It depends what sort of change. These can be used to raise money – the ALS icebucket challenge has reportedly raised over $100 million for the ALS Association, and also to increase awareness of a particular cause, which can lead to practical outcomes: the ALS association says the icebucket challenge has led to a 30 – 100 percent increase in participation in traditional fundraising activities, like sponsored walks. Social media games are also a useful, if relatively under-explored use of the technology – again, they can be used to raise both money and awareness: freerice.org, for example, sponsored by the World Food Programme, says it has funded 94 billion grains of rice – enough to feed 5 million people for one day. Social media tools can also work really well with more traditional awareness-raising campaigns: if done well, they can allow organisers to engage a new and large audience fast, and to being a long-term relationship with them. Social media tools also allow organisers to gather data about their users which can be used to inform traditional awareness raising campaigns.
What are common pitfalls?
Common pitfalls include taking audiences for granted, mimicking other successful campaigns too obviously (how long till we see #icecubechallenge or icecreamchallenge?), being unable to translate social media engagement into long-term engagement, and having very few clear and achievable processes by which goals can be met.
Can you highlight a particularly successful campaign?
Again, it depends on what you mean by success, but if you look at a campaign which has had a practical outcome, then the ALS #icebucket challenge has been phenomenally successful. You could say that some of the organic hashtags which have emerged in reasons to particular events have been successful, in that they have opened up a space to curate discussions and images of important issues – so #iftheygunnedmedown, #yesallwomen and #malala are good examples, as is #muslimrage. They aren’t really ‘campaigns’ though, although traditional aid organisations have certainly used them to communicate their own messages – #malala is a good example there. I’d say that the gay marriage campaign whereby users change their profile pic to ‘=’ could be successful in that it required users to make a stance which was very clearly associated with their social identity. It is difficult to measure tangible ‘success’ though, because so many social media campaigns are simply about ‘awareness raising’ , and so success can be simply defined by the amount of shares and likes – but whether this is actually successful, long-term awareness raising is another matter altogether and one which requires different metrics.
What are some of the dangers for the aid community in using this type of advocacy tool?
There are many pitfalls for any organisers seeking to run a social media campaign, but particularly for the aid community. Probably the most important of these is being associated with something which is by its very definition is almost frivolous. Treading the line between engagement in serious issues and the need to reach a huge audience on social media is fraught with difficulty. Relatedly, social media campaigns, like all media campaigns but even more so, demand short, emotive campaign material – #Kony2012 was a really good example of this. But #Kony2012 also reinforced really unhelpful narratives about child soldiers, and simplified an horrendous, complex conflict into something easily digestible by American teens. Is this a bad thing? Maybe not, if it got those teens mobilised within the aid context more broadly, but it is a difficult argument to make.
It’s also important to remember that campaigns can be captured fairly easily on social media. Michelle Obama’s #bringbackourgirls tweet is a good example here – it was reworked by US conservatives, reddit users and even ISIS, and then re-released on twitter. These remixes crowded the hashtag and devalued the original message.
Overall, social media campaigns are at the moment really limited to Western users. This means that they are trying to activate a powerful humanitarian actor—Westerners–by using what are essentially very blunt instruments. Campaigns which ‘demand’ change without allowing for complexity or accountability can reinforce a new type of ‘muscular humanitarianism’ associated with short, sharp top-down interventions which I think is ultimately unhelpful.