The Value of 'Clicktivism' and Online Political Mobilization...
We've all received them, but how effective are they, really? Mass email action alerts - those spammy emails asking us to essentially copy & paste an already-written statement on some political issue that will be sent to our Congressman - is often criticized as having little to no effect. With scorn, these mass email action alerts are sometimes referred to as "slacktivism" or "clicktivism" because of the minuscule amount of effort that's needed to participate in advocacy campaigns.
However, the effectiveness of clicktivism is certainly debatable. On the one hand, it certainly "dumbs-down" the message enough for policymakers to easily disregard its seriousness. On the other hand, that same dumbing-down process definitely engages more citizens into being politically active who probably would not have been otherwise, and that's a very healthy thing for democracy.
One recent paper by David Karpf from Rutgers University takes up the argument that clicktivism is, indeed, a positive development. In this month's Policy & Internet Journal, he has written an article titled, "Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group's Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism". In it, Karpf argues that 1) mass emails are the functional equivalent of the photocopied and faxed petitions and postcards of "offline" activism, and thus only represent a difference-of-degree; and 2) such low-quality, high-volume actions are only a single tactic in the strategic repertoire of advocacy groups, thus reducing cause for concern about their limited effect in isolation.
Both of these points resonate as true, yet they still fail to make a convincing case that clicktivism is, ultimately, effective.
Another paper by Stuart Shulman of UMass-Amherst takes up the opposing argument. In "The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking", he argues that it's a fallacy to suggest that online public participation will somehow become a harbinger of a more deliberative and democratic era. After analyzing one mass email campaign directed towards influencing the EPA, he found that only a tiny portion of the public comments sent constituted potentially relevant new information for the EPA to consider. Instead, the vast majority of the public comments were either exact duplicates of a two-sentence form letter, or they were variants of a small number of broad claims about the inadequacy of a proposed rule.
Think of it in these completely anecdotal, unscientific terms. If you were a member of Congress, which would be more likely to influence your decision on a given issue - an individual who comes to your office and makes an intelligent, well-reasoned case with a number of supporting points, or 150 emails sent from anonymous accounts where nearly every single message was copy-and-pasted, word-for-word, and identical?
Interest groups, in this day and age, are going to continue using clicktivism as a major component in their advocacy strategies, and there are clearly legitimate political, economic, and organizational reasons for doing so. But Shulman is right. There is a danger that these gains may come at the expense of a more substantial role for citizens who wish to use digital technology to bring about public engagement in more comprehensive and effective ways.