28 April 2013

Is Online Activism Enough

I’ve clicked to save the bees, e-mailed my MP about the NHS and even sent a letter to the President of Ecuador about oil drilling in their national forest. Plus I tweeted about the actions I had taken and shared the link on Facebook – what more do you want?

With the dramatic success of Avaaz and 38 Degrees, plus the move into online activism of most of the major campaigning organisations, from Greenpeace to the WWF via Action Aid and Oxfam, it seems like our inboxes and social media sites are filled to bursting with petitions we can sign and emails to send all aiming to make the world a better place. Some of these gather hundreds of thousands, or even millions of signatures, demonstrating the popular appeal of campaigns to save the NHS or protect the Arctic.

But just how much can be achieved through online activism and can we really change the world with the click of a mouse? Well there’s some evidence that they can have a significant impact. Take the UK government’s plans to sell off our forests to private interests. 38 Degrees launched a highly effective campaign attracting lots of support and publicity such that the government first decided to appoint a review panel and then backed down completely on the sale plans. Tapping into the concerns of an already divided government this demonstration of people power proved far too much to resist.

For every success though there are plenty of examples of campaigns which have just been ignored. One of the great strengths of the online campaign – how easy it is for everyone to participate – is also one of its fundamental weaknesses. If it’s so easy to participate it’s also easy for those on the receiving end of the demands to consider that the signer hasn’t really demonstrated any particular commitment to the cause.

Many years ago it was explained to me by someone who had worked in an MP’s office that there is a clear hierarchy of communication and the attention it will receive. At the top is the handwritten letter, followed closely by a typed, hand signed letter. After that comes a one-off email and right at the bottom is the generically generated bulk email you can create with a few quick clicks online. The impact of the first of these I was told, was hundreds of times that of the last.

So while the online campaign can a long way to raising the profile of an issue, on its own it probably isn’t going to change the political landscape. For that you need far fewer people but demonstrating a much greater involvement.

It’s an inevitable fact that in order to gain leverage, a campaign needs to attract media attention, and this is much easier to do with people on the streets than it ever will be with online activism. So that’s why this weekend saw protestors, many dressed in bee costumes, on the streets of London calling on the government to ban harmful pesticides. Their numbers were tiny by comparison with those that had signed an earlier petition or emailed the environment secretary; but their impact was far greater for being so much more newsworthy.

I don’t in any way want to put people off participating in online activism. It has a valuable role to play and in the right circumstances can win significant battles; in addition to which it can help greatly to bring people to greater involvement in a campaign. I do however want to suggest that physically turning up at meetings and going to demonstrations is likely to have more impact and remains crucial in the delivery of a successful campaign. It shows real commitment to the cause and brings people together in a way which online campaigning can never do.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I have often wondered whether these online click-to-send-an-email things end up being viewed rather like spam by the recipients.

  2. I agree it's a debate that's been ongoing for a while, but I'd add two things to what you've said.
    1) Digital campaigning is simply a tool to broaden the reach of your campaign. To evaluate whether it has impact or not is to abnormally separate it from the other tools that should also be used to achieve your campaign aims. In some instances it may be appropriate to use only one tool for campaigning (which could be a banner drop, or 500 emails to the right recipient), but fundamentally digital campaigning is just a tool, like a placard.
    2) In terms of how you're evaluating success, I might also have a little quibble. I'm not sure if you meant to imply it, but it sounds like you're saying media attention = equals campaign success. Whereas, I'd argue media is a channel, that can be used to further your campaign aims, but definitely isn't an endpoint (especially with rising power and significance of social media, etc).
    A good thought piece though, thanks for sharing, and hope those comments didn't come off as patronising or rude. They weren't meant to be, it made me think!