Activism vs. Slacktivism Debate

Activism vs. Slacktivism Debate

Does activism via digital channels work? Skeptics, realists and optimists debate the impact of digital activism.
Highlights and Reactions

The Panel

Is digital campaigning effective or just slacktivism or clicktivism: action without impact by people wishing to be seen to be doing good? The panel explores this with experienced people from Oxfam, 38Degrees,LabourStart, Adbusters, Amnesty International, Oxford University and an independent activist.

All activism depends on the belief and hope by participants that acting together will make a difference. With increasing debate and rhetoric around the influence and power of digital activism, what will the future be for this form of mobilisation if misinformed commentary or ill-conceived use of digital tools and networks attempt to undermine it?

This debate challenged and provoked:

  • campaigners who are not using online mobilisation strategically and the debate will challenge them to up their game
  • skeptics of the power of digital activism and the debate will challenge them to learn how and when digital activism does work

The Activism vs. Slacktivism Debate occurred on 21 March, 2011 in Oxford, UK on the event of the 2011 eCampaigning Forum. The debate featured:

  • Chair: Kathryn Corrick - Digital Media Consultant
  • David Babbs - Executive Director, 38 Degrees
  • Paul Hilder - Director of Campaigns, Oxfam
  • Eric Lee - Founding Editor of LabourStart.org
  • Naomi McAuliffe - Poverty and Human Rights Campaign Manager, Amnesty International UK
  • Rasmus Kleis Nielsen - PhD fellow, Oxford University & Roskilde University, Denmark (prerecorded)
  • Sam Smith - Democracy & Transparency activist
  • Tom Steinberg - Director, MySociety.org
  • Micah White - Adbusters & Guardian contributor (prerecorded)

Format

  1. Each articulates their points in a 5-10 minute presentation
  2. Opportunity to respond to others' points for 20 minutes
  3. Audience question, answer, comment and debate

About the speakers

Kathryn Corrick

Kathryn Corrick (Chair)

Digital Media Consultant

A decade of digital media experience has seen Kathryn make contributions to the likes of McCann Erickson, Digital Britain, New Statesman magazine and the Online News Association. As well as being an independent communications consultant Kathryn is a visiting lecturer in online journalism and a trainer in digital media. Find out more about Kathryn.

David Babbs

David Babbs

Executive Director, 38 Degrees

David Babbs is the executive director of 38 Degrees, a community of over 700,000 UK citizens who use the internet to organise campaigns on the issues that matter to them. Most recently, 38 Degrees members helped stop the privatisation of England's forests. David previously worked as Head of Activism at Friends of the Earth where he led the mobilisation for the Big Ask campaign, which achieved the world’s first Climate Change Law with binding targets. He’s previously worked on campaigns on poverty, refugee rights, and social housing.

Paul Hilder

Paul Hilder

Director of Campaigns, Oxfam (in 2011)

Paul Hilder is a British-born social entrepreneur, writer and organiser. In 2000 he co-founded openDemocracy.net, a website for debate about global politics and culture. He helped launch the global web movement Avaaz.org in 2007, and served as one of its first campaign directors. In 2010, he became Director of Campaigns for Oxfam, the global development movement. In 2012, he became Vice President of Global Campaigns at Change.org.

Hilder is also a co-founder and board member of the British campaigning movement 38 Degrees. In 2010 he gave a TEDx talk on "The Power of Food", linked to the 2010 UN Millennium Development Goals summit.

Eric Lee

Eric Lee

Founding Editor of LabourStart (News and campaigning website of the international trade union movement)

Eric Lee has been active on the democratic Left and trade union movement for forty years. He has written several books, including The Labour Movement and the Internet (1996). He is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

Summary of Eric's position:
"While I consider online tools important, I think that to talk about what happened in Egypt or Tunisia (and even more so, Libya) as 'twitter revolutions' is absolute nonsense. It reveals a complete lack of understanding of what caused these and other revolutions. I was in Cairo a year ago meeting with the very same activists who last month occupied Tahrir square. I wrote about my experience with them - and I predicted a Poland 1980-type movement. In all my meetings in Egypt, I never once heard anyone mention social media. To use an American metaphor, social media are like the horse that Paul Revere rode the night the American revolution began. Without a fast and robust horse, Revere could never have sparked the rebellion.  What we remember about that night in 1775 is not how effective the horse was at its job, but at the messenger - Revere himself - and the message that he carried."

Naomi McAuliffe

Naomi McAuliffe

Poverty and Human Rights Campaign Manager, Amnesty International UK

Naomi manages 'Demand Dignity', Amnesty's Poverty and Human Rights Programme in the UK which includes campaigns on the right to housing, health and livelihood internationally, Corporate Accountability and campaigning against discrimination of Gypsy Roma Travellers. As the global priority campaign, Amnesty is exploring how digital activism, among other things, can be used by activists in the global south; including the opportunities, challenges and impacts of this. Naomi managed the 'Make Shell Come Clean' campaign which sought to address the impact of the oil industry in the Niger Delta and deployed a number of social media and online tools. In her spare time, Naomi also blogs and is an avid Tweeter.

Summary of Naomi's position:

"Social media is undoubtedly a useful activist tool but certainly we need to be realistic about its impact and see its role together with other forms of activism and the  context its operating in. Facebook and Twitter were used by many to organise in Egypt in January this year, yet it was the people on the streets who brought about the revolution. Plus it is important to consider who has access to digital activism and what role do they have in social change - this returns a very mixed picture and one that no one can claim to be wholly positive or wholly negative."

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

PhD fellow, Department of Politics & International Relations, Oxford University & Roskilde University (Denmark) (via recorded video presentation)

Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is a post doctoral research fellow doing cross-national comparative research on the business of journalism and its role in democracy. He holds a BA and a MA in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen, a MA in Political Theory from the University of Essex, and a PhD in Communications from Columbia University. Most of his research deals with political communication, campaign practices, and media institutions and their ongoing transformations, especially at the intersection between old organizations and new technologies. His broader interests include media participation, civic engagement, and social theory.

Summary of Rasmus' position:

"It is time we move beyond (a) the activism vs. slacktivism debate, the (b) cyber-optimist vs. cyber-pessimist debate, and (c) the question of whether new technologies "cause" specific kinds of events--Twitter revolutions etc. These are artificial dichotomies and misleading frameworks that are kept alive more by the need to stage polemical confrontations than by any particular intellectual substance. I will instead propose the questions that academics, activists and organizers need to focus on instead to make the most of on and offline platforms."

Sam Smith

Sam Smith

Democracy & Transparency activist

Sam Smith has worked on various projects around data, democracy, transparency and other activism for nearly a decade. Recently involved in some small human rights related projects, the ManchesterAirportOnTrial.org support team, a few media stunts, salt bins, and a few other things in what is mythically referred to as "free time". He especially enjoys projects that bring a simple tangible benefit to people, preferably over the long term; but after 6 years, DirectionlessGov.com shouldn't still be funny and relevant. He also runs the OpenTech Conference for techies and activists - you should come.

Summary of Sam's position:
"Defining activism as "disturbing the present in service of the future", this is a brief look forward to the future consequences of a couple of example online campaigns in the UK. Consideration will focus around how some disturbances we're constructing may be a significant disservice to the future, and a brief consideration of the alternative paths some have taken to successful campaigning using the internet, and pictures of cats."

Tom Steinberg

Tom Steinberg

Director, MySociety

Tom Steinberg is the founder and director of mySociety, a non-profit, open source organisation that runs many of the best-known democracy websites in the UK. These include the Parliamentary transparency website TheyWorkForYou and the somewhat self-explanatory FixMyStreet. mySociety’s missions are to build websites which give people simple, tangible benefits in the democratic and community aspects of their lives, and which teach the public and voluntary sector how they can use technology better to help citizens.

Summary of Tom's position:
"I'll be talking about the kinds of campaigning that social media is good at, and the kinds that it isn't..."

Micah White

Micah White

Contributing Editor, Adbusters

(Via recorded video presentation) Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters magazine, an independent activist and a pioneer of the critique of clicktivism. He is working on a book about the future of activism.

Summary of Micah's position:

"A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between clicktivists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism, a reliance on the tricks of advertising and an obsession with metrics. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes."

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by Duane Raymond published Mar 28, 2013,