The vast majority of online statements and petitions have absolutely no effect on policy makers
Slacktivism: Shallow engagement with social problems that does not follow through into concrete action offline
Digital Consumers by Dr Jeremy Malcolm
IN online advocacy, there is a tension between being persuasive and being accurate. This is seen in the tendency of campaigning organisations to exaggerate the issues at stake.
Across a variety of issue areas such as health, the environment and Internet freedom, campaigners employ messages like “Anyone could get AIDS,” “GMOs are poison” and “Stop the UN takeover of the Internet.”
These are all worthwhile campaigns in the sense that there are important truths underlying them – yet the messages themselves are exaggerated and therefore misleading.
The media has always dealt with the same temptation to sensationalise stories in order to improve the prospect of making an impact on readers, and the mark of good reporters is their ability to make a compelling story that doesn't twist the facts.
The same is true of activists. The threats to the rights and freedoms of consumers and citizens are real enough without exaggerating them, and doing so can reduce the credibility of an individual activist or his or her organisation, amongst those who know better.
As well as the pressure to deliver a powerful message, online advocates are also driven to ensure that their message is simple and concise.
There is good reason for this, as with the volume of communication that we are exposed to online, our attention spans have become shorter.
Indeed this trend that has been underway for decades – the term “information overload” was coined by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s. But even Toffler may have been surprised back then that today's activists would be striving to get their message across in 140 characters or less.
How do we see this reflected in online advocacy movements? Firstly, we are seeing a greater tendency for specialisation in online advocacy.
Some of the newer advocacy organisations devote most of their attention and resources to Web-based campaigns. The best known of these is Avaaz.org, which hosted one of the most successful online campaigns against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
Though Avaaz is not dedicated to online issues, there are a number of other online activist groups that are, including Access, Demand Progress, OpenMedia.ca and Fight for the Future. Some of their campaigns have been remarkably successful, and in some cases, unexpectedly so.
For example, in the space of about three months over 2010-2011 OpenMedia.ca amassed over 400,000 signatures to a successful petition against metered billing of Internet services, while the fledgling organisation was less than three years old.
But the biggest success of these online activist groups, undoubtedly, was the defeat of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) bills in the United States Congress and House of Representatives in 2011.
These bills, which would have authorised the blocking of foreign websites without a court hearing, were roundly defeated thanks to an online campaign that included a blackout of popular websites such as Wikipedia.
The bills were bad – really bad – but even so, the campaign could fairly be said to have been a mixture of truth and shameless exaggeration.
Nonetheless it was also incredibly successful, which emboldened the organisations responsible, and led into other campaigns such as 2012's campaign around the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
If the SOPA/ PIPA campaigns had stretched the truth, then the ITU campaign was the point at which things really started to go astray. Whilst none of the organisations mentioned above (all of whom I respect) overstepped the line in that ITU campaign, I have criticised others who certainly did.
More broadly on other issues, there are seasoned campaigners who have levied criticisms against online campaigning organisations that jump head-first into campaigns on issues that they themselves may not have fully understood.
Part of the problem is that some of these online campaigning organisations do not have a track record of more conventional forms of activism. Funding for online campaigning has not been terribly hard to come by, through a combination of grassroots support through crowdfunding, and in the case of the ITU campaign, grants from the US State Department.
But more valuable than funding is first-hand experience of problems actually experienced by citizens whose rights and freedoms are being infringed, and for some online campaigning organisations that do not have a broad-based membership, such experience has been in shorter supply.
The merit of such online-only campaigns has also been questioned. It is often derided as “slacktivism,” a form of shallow engagement with social problems that does not follow through into concrete action offline.
Indeed it is true, in my experience, that the vast majority of online statements and petitions into which much time and energy is poured, have absolutely no effect on policy makers.
How, then, can online activists influence policy makers? The most effective methods have not changed much in centuries. It involves establishing a relationship with them (which in turn usually requires getting a foot in the door so that you can meet with them personally to talk face to face), and providing them with facts and figures that they can use to justify the position that you are seeking to advance.
This involves a lot of research, a lot of writing and talking, and a lot of business cards.
Online engagement does have a part to play in this process, although it perhaps isn't an obvious one. Its importance is not in persuading policy makers directly, because policy makers care very little about what happens online – except in outlying cases like SOPA and PIPA described above.
Rather, the merit of online campaigns is that they can enable campaigners to build a global coalition of partners who can rally around an issue, and put out a consistent set of messages that are easily digested by the media and the general public.
This creates an environment for the campaigner in which the more conventional modes of advocacy outlined above can become more effective.
The defeat of ACTA in Europe provides a good example – whilst the online activism was of vital importance in raising awareness and building networks, the online petitions themselves were of marginal importance.
Rather it was the street protests and the phone calls and visits to parliamentarians that eventually achieved the seemingly impossible. In this case, online activism worked – but only in conjunction with a lot of hard work from experienced activists offline.
Dr Jeremy Malcolm is an Internet and Open Source lawyer, consumer advocate and geek. He is also a senior policy officer at Consumers International and can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Previous Instalments of Digital Consumers:
Consumers, domains and astroturfing
How the Trans-Pacific Partnership threatens online rights and freedoms
Internet freedom in a world of states
Copyright enforcement is killing people
WCIT: Freemasons, Internet memes and salt
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