Will everyone retweeting Emma Watson’s #HeForShe call to arms seek it offline too, or will they forget about it, distracted by the next hot topic?

Click Here to Save the World

6th May 2016

Activism isn’t what it used to be. Once it was all about rallies, marches, door-to-door leafleting. Today campaigning is at everyone’s fingertips. Jennifer Lipman investigates.

It’s never been easier to show that you care. To sign an e-petition as the kettle boils, hold up a sign proclaiming why an issue matters and tweet it instantly, or to tell Facebook ‘something must be done’ without leaving your bed. From the Ice Bucket Challenge to #GivingTuesday, and from Emma Watson’s #HeForShe movement to the No Make Up Selfie, online campaigning has come of age. But is clicktivism making us more active citizens, or merely adding to the noise?
Pre-internet, it took expensive advertising or national news coverage to reach large numbers, whether that was to fundraise, highlight an injustice, or appeal for policy change. Now a catchy hashtag, shareable photograph and good email subject line can get you there quickly and cheaply, meaning that few campaigns now exist purely offline. ‘It’s difficult to remain relevant without having online as a central element of your fundraising strategy,’ says Rachel Earnshaw of The Big Give. ‘It provides the opportunity to convert interest into action by the simple click of a button.’

Firstly, it’s now far easier to identify supporters online, thanks to increasingly sophisticated data analytics tools. ‘You can target a specific group, test theories, and tweak campaigns in real-time, to gauge whether your campaign is resonating’ explains Erin Niimi Longhurst from Social Misfits Media.

For grassroots activists without big budgets, going digital is a no-brainer. ‘If you want to stop something being built at the end of your road, social media is fabulous, because it’s really bottom up,’ says Trevor Morris, professor in Public Relations at Richmond University. ‘It’s also very strong for helping keep up to date and engaged those who are already engaged.’

The question is whether that ‘engagement’ is worth anything. For one, says Dr Grant Blank, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, the accuracy of the targeting ‘is questionable at best’ – campaigns aren’t automatically more effective with a digital database. ‘Is that email going to be more effective than if you went around to everyone on your block and knocked on their doors on a Saturday?’

For another, online ‘reach’ is often over-exaggerated: 10,000 signatures online may not mean 10,000 in person. ‘Campaigns talk about 200,000 people engaged but actually that’s the same as a circulation of a not particularly successful newspaper,’ says Morris. ‘What you’re not getting is that mass exposure you had when more people read a national newspaper or watched one main source of news.’

Added to which, will those who sign your petition also write to their politician, join a demonstration, or donate to charity? Will everyone retweeting Emma Watson’s call to arms seek it offline too, or will they forget about it, distracted by the next day’s hot topic for righteous indignation?

Morris draws a comparison with marketing and the fact that thousands of ‘likes’ for a brand don’t necessarily boost sales. ‘Awareness is a means to an end, it’s not an end,’ he says. ‘Campaigns need to achieve behaviour change.’

He suggests the numbers don’t always stack up; campaigns will celebrate communicating with 700,000 people online, then raise just £80,000, meaning the majority didn’t donate anything. ‘It can be a very shallow level of involvement,’ he says. And, worryingly, it allows people to feel as though they’re doing something, rather than consider whether they genuinely are.

If finding an audience is easier, online is also an increasingly crowded marketplace – anyone can start a digital campaign challenging us to give something up, wear something for a day, pledge a few pounds or sign a letter to the Prime Minister. This isn’t solely down to the internet (there has, in fact, been a surge in the number of charities since the 1940s) but with so much communication in cyberspace, it’s difficult to get through.

Plus, everyone is at it, on all sides. ‘If your campaign targets people and your opponent’s campaign targets people, nobody has any advantage,’ argues Dr Blank. ‘You’re just each producing more detailed information.’ Information, that is, that many may delete straight away. ‘If you’re not interested you don’t even have to look at the header,’ he says. ‘It’s much harder if someone knocks on the door.

The ease of getting involved may also dilute the impact. As Myf Nixon of mySociety explains, it’s very easy for the citizen to express their views, but research suggests that coordinated appeals to MPs with ‘identikit messages’ aren’t given as much consideration.

Despite these shortcomings, clicktivism isn’t going away anytime soon. The question is whether what was once seen as a transformative force has become the equivalent of telling your dinner guests you’ve bought organic. Put simply, is it all just public virtue-signalling – behaviour designed to prove to the world that you are right-minded?

Critics suggest that showing off has become the point, rather than the campaign itself. As Dr Blank says, nobody is checking up; what’s visible is that you did the ice bucket challenge, not that you donated. And the more people tweet or share, the more they feel they are doing something.

Certainly, online campaigning feeds off the increasing pressure to be fashionable in terms of the causes you support. You only have to look to the ‘share’ buttons that appear after you’ve signed up to see how digital campaigning thrives off people boasting. Campaign groups don’t only want you, they want you to show off to your Facebook chums so they’ll sign up too.

Yet virtue signalling is hardly is new. The internet might make it easier, but there have always been those who are all bluster. The people who failed to donate after filming the Ice Bucket Challenge are probably the ones who would once have shuffled through their pockets when confronted by a charity collector. In fact, argues Dr Blank, mostly those interested in small actions like signing petitions are the same people who’d do it offline. ‘If you’re not interested, the fact that the barriers are less is not going to change your opinion,’ he says. If you back a political campaign, the driving force is interest in politics, even if that’s tied in with you wanting to assert your credentials to your equally political friends.

In any case, virtue signalling – for better or worse – is a cheap way to get people talking about an issue. As Nixon says, it’s human nature to want to show you’re doing good. Organisations might as well ‘leverage’ this to get important messages across.

Longhurst agrees, arguing that those who dismiss online campaigning as a way to feel good need to stop worrying about why, and ‘get smarter at tapping into this desire’. After all, she says, the next generation of donors and campaigners won’t have ever known a non-digital world.

In the interim, it’s about online and offline informing each other. To Nixon, the internet is the place to point people to background material and perhaps also the ‘gateway to activism’ for the younger generation, with campaigns starting on Facebook but spilling out into the world.

‘Our focus is on digital because it’s a low-cost, low-effort way to reach a large number of people,’ Nixon says. ‘But we still let people know about them via old-school materials like leaflets.’ She stresses that nothing will replace the physical presence of human beings who have given up a day to show how strongly they feel.

Ultimately, campaign groups are going to have to find ways to channel ‘armchair activism’ into action and donations, from micro-donations to ‘insta-meets’. Earnshaw points to innovations like contactless payments and crowdfunding. She’s optimistic, saying that in a world that’s increasingly lived online, it’s difficult to imagine that this won’t translate into changes in fundraising.

For now, it’s about addressing the weakness in online campaigning as soon as possible, and making good use of the strengths. ‘If online gets people to take proper action, then clearly it’s worked,’ says Morris. ‘If it’s just virtue signalling, it hasn’t.’

Find Your Local