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  • Lucy Gavaghan

Activism and the internet: A true power couple?

Lucy Gavaghan takes a retrospective look at activism over the last few years. She tackles 'slacktivism' and the power that online activism can have.

Defund by the Autonomous Design Group (Instagram: @we_are_adg)

Image description: As a group, we’re based in different cities (even different countries) so in one respect our organising hasn’t changed significantly - we still communicate online (via Zoom and Slack) and much of our work is spread via social media. We also released a set of eight housing posters just before Christmas, because we see the need for housing organising as a response to people losing their jobs, not being able to pay rent etc. in the pandemic. We're giving these out for free for people to put up (just send us a message), or you can buy one for your room and support our work.

If you’re a social media user, it’s safe to say that you will have likely seen or conducted some form of 'clicktivism' in the past weeks and months. The murder of George Floyd, coupled with the constraints on physical organising and protest produced by the pandemic, saw an explosion of internet activity and exemplified the powers of (and doubts circling) virtual activism.

‘Clicktivism’ refers to the relatively new phenomenon of digital campaigning and, namely, online petitions. Whilst many embrace e-petition platforms as a tool of empowerment for otherwise stifled issues and voices, some claim that online signatures only evidence shallow commitment to a cause and may even serve to quash more meaningful action.

The argument sounds something like this: we see a trending campaign as we scroll down our social feeds; moved by the cause (or its perceived popularity) we press a link, fill in a few details, and voilà. Problem solved! This is where the idea of ‘clicktivism’ picks up a different neologism - ‘slacktivism’. Delving into this term can help us to challenge the assumptions it makes and the realities it obscures.

Some would suggest that acts such as e-petition signing are ‘too easy’, that there isn’t any real commitment to the cause, or that it simply can’t create substantive change. This in itself is a lax argument to make. There should be no barriers to this kind of engagement - this is a key niche in politics and social change in the online world. Anyone and everyone regardless of identity or history should be able to use these platforms to put forward their call for change at any level of politics and society. It isn’t the fact of a petition taking an electronic form that determines its success, rather, it is the people behind it and the minds and voices it attracts along the way which infuse it with potential.

Soaring signature counts are the product of passion and drive from the individuals and groups - and it would be a brave critic who calls the concrete changes sparked by online petitions a product of ‘slacktivism’. From overturning the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay youth in 2013 to galvanising demands for justice following the murder of George Floyd this summer with nearly 20 million signatures, petitions are proving their centrality in defending human rights and calling out systemic brokenness the world over. In our present era of information and technology, we need to envision e-petitions as an impeccably powerful, oftentimes crucial, tool in social change as opposed to an isolated means to an end.

‘Clicktivism’, be it sharing content on social media to spread awareness, viral hashtags, or e-petitions is an instrument and catalyst of deeper movements and a temperature gauge for public opinion. Laura Coryton launched the ‘Stop Taxing Periods’ petition in May 2014 and has been a key voice in the build-up of pressure on the government ever since. Campaigners have been working on the issue for decades and Rishi Sunak’s budget for 2020 marked a watershed moment for an inspirational force of activists including Laura. The battle for progress persists and Laura has captured the imaginations of many. Her supporters have been active in maintaining pressure over time, pulling issues of menstruation and inequality from the shadows of stigma and taking Sunak’s commitment as a step in the direction of a continuing movement.

‘Clicktivism’ is the public contribution to a rallying cry of others. The initial impetus to turn to the internet can stem from the most human of frustrations, often compounded over time and triggered in unexpected ways. Yes, virality is fickle. It often fades following an explosion in popularity, and some issues do slip beneath the radar of public attention. What we need to hold onto is the idea that successes embody more momentum, human energy and struggling than anyone headline can capture. Like-minded people who may be geographically or socially dispersed can join in solidarity.

Activism is messy. In a way, that’s what makes it so beautiful. It’s easy to construct a critique of clicktivism by equating success with, for example, immediate policy changes. In this framing, if the calls of a petition or a movement birthed in online networks aren’t seamlessly absorbed into the political agenda, then we can dismiss those involved as slackers. Campaigns, whether they exist and play out online, in public spaces or develop in communities or homes, share a need for momentum. Energy is built over time and carried, not just in a click or any defining moment, but from the trials and tribulations of seeking growth and traction. COVID-19 has reinforced the value of online communication and the petition website has witnessed a remarkable spike in activity: recording 3 times usual rate of petitions started and 7 times the number of signatures.

To extract the full potential of our current moment and seek a future of richer social and political engagement, we need to take a more conscious approach to online activism. One in which we challenge lazy dismissal of online engagement as pointless or performative. When the inherent power of the internet is harnessed effectively, marginalized voices and stories can be elevated alongside our understanding of our milieu. Couple that with the power residing in us all and we can crystallise our compassion around injustices on every level.

Ultimately, ‘clicktivism’ has as much potential as we choose to vest in it.

Lucy Gavaghan is a 1st Year International Law & International Relations student at the University of Edinburgh.

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