Did Clicktivism Actually Change Anything IRL In 2014?
The Debrief: When it comes to spreading an important message, the Internet might have scale, but it can also be delteted, blocked, silenced, and hidden...
Illustration by Daniel Clarke
Like so many young women, the internet is my lover, my mother, my brother and the blanket with which I smother so much of life’s boredom, discontent and solitude. And yet, barely a day goes by in which I don’t have to defend it with bared teeth and sharpened thumb; to come to its rescue and protect its honour.
Because, yes, while the internet is the shit brown puddle spreading across the footpath of our collective experience, littered with the empty cans and fag butts of misinformation and reactionary offence, splashing across the shoe of feminist debate and hiding a manhole cover that drops into the sewer of serious international illegality, it is also the greatest forum for debate, of galvanising like-minded people, reaching out to the marginal, unmasking authority and supporting those we love that we have. It’s not he internet you hate - just some of the people using it.
More of us than ever before are using the internet as a tool of protest, political campaigning and to organise direct action. As all those inboxes full of bee-saving, NHS-protecting, Ugandan homophobia-attacking and public service-defending emails can attest - 2014 was the year of clicktivism. Where online petitions fluttered through our servers like a murumeration of swallows. Some were worthwhile, some were genuinely fatuous, many went ignored and several affected significant change. But have reached peak clicktivism? And can we really change the world by just clicking our fingers?
For many young people - as evidenced by the low turn out in the European elections compared to, say, the Scottish Independence referendum - politics has moved on from traditional party debate and is now defined by issue-based campaining. ‘Trust in politicians is really crumbling,’ says Rebecca Falcon, a campaigner for 38 Degrees. ‘A recent YouGov survey showed that only one in four people trust their MP. And yet when we asked MPs, nine out of 10 of them thought they were trusted. It just shows what a disconnect there is. After decades of scandal, backroom lobbying and media collusion, our members say they feel a real poverty of choice at the ballot box. They believe in politics as a way to change things that they care about - they just don’t want to do that in a way that plays into a system that they feel alienated from. They’re trying to influence the debate from the outside - they see that as more effective than joining a party.’
Online campaigning also allows us, the public, to hold authority to account in a more immediate, more direct way than waiting for general elections, stakeholder meetings or annual policy reviews. Through things like Campaigns by You - a section of 38 Degrees that allows anyone to launch their own campaign, much like America’s We The People organisation, created by the Whitehouse - you can take direct action against a shop, a service provider, an institution or a public company without the middlemen of local MPs, consumer groups or investors.
Of course, putting power into the hands of the people doesn’t proceed without incident. A bill has been put forward to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make it a criminal offence to describe a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie, thousands have taken to Facebook to complain about hunt-happy Metallica playing the yurt-fest that is modern Glastonbury, while 24,000 fans are petitioning AMC to bring Beth Greene back to The Walking Dead.
But there are heartwarming outcomes sporing like mushrooms across the internet too. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman, was saved from being flogged to death for being Christian this July, in part because of the 1,092,273 people who signed a petition in her defence; the perpetrators coud no longer act in the protective shadow of international ignorance. Of course clicking your mouse cannot actually save a life, but perhaps the strength of internet campaigning is that old adage - that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Online campaigns played a significant role in gaining the right to convert civil partnerships into marriages; they got Jane Austen on the new £10 note; continued the No More Page 3 battle; and helped The New Era estate win their campaign for Social Housing not Social Cleansing estate
The statistics do sound impressive. Change.org has more than 6 million users in the UK and is growing by more than 2 million new users every month. According to Change.org, over one million people backed campaigns on women's rights in the past 12 months; women’s rights campaigns were the most likely to win on the site and 7 of the top 20 biggest winning petitions in 2014 on women's rights issues. We saw genuine, if small, victories including Fahma Mohamed’s campaign to get the Government to write to schools about Female Genital Mutilation, the fight to get mums' names on marriage certificates and the huge backlash against “pick up artist” Julien Blanc. But, as someone who was strapped into a pushchair and chanted through the streets of London on protest marches before I even became continent, I’ll admit to some cycnicism about the value of online campaigning.
While I agree with the UK Director of Change.org, Brie Rogers Lowery, when she says that ‘It’s been a remarkable year for online people power... people from all walks of life are coming together online to make their voice heard,’ I’m not convinced entirely . I can’t help but feel that her claim that, ‘The web really is now the place for people to create the change they want to see,’ is perhaps just a little hopeful. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it cannot replace direct action and political weight. It can spread message, but also can be deleted, blocked, silenced and hidden. The internet is the means by which we hold authority to account - it is not a replacement for that very authority. Not yet, anyway.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, the internet and I have some quality time planned. Just the two of us.
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Illustration by Daniel Clarke
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