Monday, January 24, 2011

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.


At 10:50 AM, Blogger Tim said...


This is an interesting post.

There's a lot of hyperbole about the role of the internet and it's far from being a silver bullet. However, I think it is dangerous to fall into the lazy thinking that characterises those who bandy about terms like "clicktivist" and "slacktivist" and turn reasonable objections about effectiveness into a widespread dismissal of the role of the internet. (Having taken a quick look at the rest of your site, I doubt you fall into that camp!)

I am concerned that your premise is flawed here, however. You start from a position where you refer to a small ineffective subset of online engagement then build an argument against that.

There's far, far more to online campaigning that spammy, mass email alerts and, unsurprisingly, most of it is far more effective than the example you pick :)

For example, take a look at the work of 38 Degrees in the UK who managed to force the government to make a U-turn on their plans to sell off the nation's forests.

Please take a look at a few of the things we're up to in the UK. Perhaps we can change your mind on the role of clicktivism and pick your brains on ways we can go beyond it :)

Best wishes


At 7:50 AM, Blogger Rob Domanski said...

Thanks for the comment, Tim. I agree that there is far more to online campaigning than spammy, mass action email alerts, and never intended to express otherwise. My point was actually that the "clicktivist" spammy emails often work against the broader goals on online campaigns. It is one tactic in the arsenal, to be sure, but when it is the only one deployed then it is more likely to detract from the main political objective than to help it.

If you have any links you'd like to provide about 38 degrees or other related activities in the U.K., they would be greatly appreciated. Cheers :-)

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Tim Hardy said...

Thanks for the clarification Rob. I agree.

I'd recommend:

I also run a lot of stuff on my own site,


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