The market economy of online activism


Rowan Harris

‘Clicktivism’ – the internet phenomenon of endorsing social and political change that is almost as indolent as the portmanteau that denotes it. As tools for empowering underrepresented groups, websites such as have allowed people to campaign for change on issues in a world which, according to its managing director Simon Willis, had ‘precious little interest in finding democratic ways to listen to single mums or parents of disabled children’. Yet despite its apparent success, powering ‘around ten campaign victories a week’, the ramifications for traditional activism are clear. As the technologically savvy young electorate have become accustomed to their sedentary struggle in which the somewhat hollow gesture of a finger is equivalent to endorsing political change, so too has the spirit of political engagement diminished.

The issue is one that stems from the commercialisation of reformist campaigns through websites and social media. Both the general public, as consumers, and those heading the campaigns, merchandisers if you will, are to be held accountable. The currency of this campaign economy is anything ranging from ad-clicks, ‘likes’, shares or retweets to virtual signatures and more recently ‘reactions’. Unfortunately for those in charge of marketing, this economy is fast-moving and volatile. They must capitalise on current events and entice the reader with pithy comments to ensure that their petition or campaign remains afloat in the endless tide of status updates and Kardashian detritus. All too often it is but a fleeting moment in which the campaign must sell itself before the reader continues, in that same dispassionate manner, to scroll down their news feed. The fiery rhetoric of activism of old has at once been condensed into an emancipatory platitude, lacking any real substance. That the customer understands the implications of their perfunctory click is implied. Of course, in this economy, the customer does not need an extensive understanding of the product – the expenditure of effort is minimal and the return is at once satisfying. Even if the petition comes to nothing, you’ve done your bit. That deserves a pat on the back at least.

Once a government e-petition attracts 10,000 signatures it will receive a response from the government; upon reaching 100,000 signatures, and on the condition that it is regarding an issue that has not recently been raised, it may be debated in parliament. In signing a convenient online petition and presenting the government with a six figure number of people who clicked on a campaign advert, are we really projecting an air of immediacy? The government is equally aware of the campaigner’s ability to leverage economies of scale through e-petitions; the fact that petitions will only be ‘considered’ for debate after surpassing the 100,000 signatures mark testifies to their scepticism surrounding these online ‘movements’. One might recall the petition to Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53/week which received nearly 500,000 signatures, but was not debated, being dismissed as a leftist ‘stunt’. Of course, there was the slightly laughable petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK earlier this year which was debated, despite the government being cognisant of its farcical nature, serving more as light entertainment and a distraction from the bleak reality of online petitions. Without an MP or MSP to champion the cause, many will fall upon deaf ears. One thing is clear: the ease with which one might provide a digital signature as opposed to actively rallying support in the streets has caused severe inflation in the online campaigning economy; idleness has devalued its currency.

A ‘movement’ requires energy –  if people believe that channelling this energy into an online petition is to set the wheels in motion then they are wrong. So enthralled by the innovative technological age are we that we have forgotten the merits of traditional activism, this paradoxically unobtrusive ‘megaphone’ as the government has labelled it will like many other new technologies soon face redundancy. With George Osborne’s 2016 budget painting a decidedly bleaker picture than his August statement, suggesting that cuts ‘equivalent to 50p in every £100’ need to be made before the end of the decade, it won’t be long before we see the resuscitation of fervent traditional left wing activism.


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