In Praise of Clicktivism
On the Ethics and Efficacy of Digital Activism
Last April thirty-thousand workers from Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, went on strike to protest cuts to their wages and benefits. After eleven days of direct action, representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reached a settlement with the billion-dollar chain on April 22. The deal was significant. Not only did it satisfy every demand of the union, but it insured that the resolution to the strike received national attention from Democratic presidential candidates including Sanders, Warren, and Biden.
The day the strike began, April 11, I shared a Facebook post from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO reminding viewers to “Stand in solidarity and remind your friends and family to respect the picket.” I was home in Massachusetts the following day, and visited my hometown Stop & Shop when one of my parents needed to refill a prescription (the strikers reassured us that we were honoring the picket line so long as we didn’t buy food). I briefly marched in the line until I had to leave, and the workers appreciated my small gesture. That afternoon, I shared another image on Facebook, this one from a group called “Support Stop & Shop Workers,” which outlined the facts: the company makes billions in profits, yet they wanted to slash take-home pay, retirement benefits, and healthcare for cashiers, stockers, and deli workers. The consequences of this raw deal would have been higher poverty and worse service.
I had no illusions about turning the world upside down by using Facebook. But it’s striking to me that this form of online activity — called “slacktivism” by its detractors — faces valid so many critiques. Which is not to say that all of these criticisms are invalid. The Quebec activist Nora Loreto, for instance, wrote in 2017 that Facebook “offers activists the feeling of contributing to social progress, while obscuring the fact that the platform cannot stand-in for real-life, on-the-ground organizing.” There is truth in what Loreto argues.
The question of slacktivism, where online media substitutes for physical efforts, is a real one in our increasingly social-media-driven age. So, I continue to wonder: can slacktivism be an effective organizing tool, or are workers better off without it?
Despite prolific digital campaigns that raise awareness for strikes, such as that surrounding the recent Uber/Lyft strike for example, it’s difficult to escape a nagging sense of their inefficacy. In this situation we might critique certain actions, or rhetorical strategies, as insufficiently radical and slacktivism as just that – a form of laziness. And if digital activism only corresponds to passivity maybe the critics are right. The problem with such criticisms is that they presume a dichotomy: one is either a slacker or a radical. But living human beings are rarely extremists. More often we are caught somewhere in the middle, in between; on our way toward detachment – or engagement.
This is why slacktivism – or “clicktivism” as we might less-pejoratively call it – is an acceptable form of protest. Because it builds up knowledge and affinities. Because it helps people take sides. Clicktivism only increases the chance that people find the motivation or time to participate in on-the-ground activities, such as a strike, a demonstration, or an electoral campaign. What critics of clicktivism fail to take into account is that people are not suddenly more efficacious the moment they stop sharing Facebook posts. Contrary to clicktivism’s critics – who forget that today’s movements must begin by addressing themselves to people who are already individuated by neoliberalism – online engagement does not have to become a wrench in the gears of the collective.
One such critic is Jodi Dean. In her 2017 book Crowds and Party (which was reviewed by Public Seminar) she re-envisions a small-c communist Party as the agent necessary to dismantle capitalism. She participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, and observed how the general assembly, which made decisions by consensus, devolved into a dangerous individualism. When the crowd could not agree to occupy Washington Square Park the call-and-response chant became an individualized mantra: “No one can decide for you…Everyone is an autonomous individual.”
Dean argues that this slogan, which fragmented the Occupy movement, today prevents the Left from organizing effectively against capital. The form of the Party is essential for crowds to dedicate their energies toward a revolutionary plan; otherwise the assembled will lose focus and fizzle out, like Occupy had. By making the individual the engine of political struggle Dean argues that we reach an impasse: “a failure to build a concentrated political force with the sustained capacity to confront and replace the capitalist mode of production.” Crowds cannot produce a system-wide political reckoning if they are no more organized than a music festival. Strikes such as the ones described above are far more organized: they make demands, close ranks, and get results.
Individualism is just as prevalent with today’s social media platforms, and Dean believes that online activism is a ruse for precisely this reason. In her 2005 article “Communicative Capitalism”, Dean argued that tech companies sell us on the “fantasy of participation,” the potential that “our actions online are politically significant, that they make a difference.” Contrary to the techno-optimists’ fantasy that the Internet is radically democratic, Dean asserts that digital platforms are “immediately political,” that we end up ignoring how Internet tools such as web radio or open source coding are not just means for activism, but already-embedded “within the brutalities of global capital.”
Another Occupy participant, Micah White, offers similar critiques from the perspective of building electoral power. Known for co-producing the idea of occupying Wall Street in Adbusters magazine, White believes, like Dean, that Occupy Wall Street was a “constructive failure” because it offers an important lesson for activists in the future. He has since written The End of Protest and founded a digital university called the Activist Graduate School. The latter uses online education to help people become better traditional organizers, not clicktivists. Clicktivism, according to White, not only fragments individuals, but also “uncritically accepts the marketization of social change.” Clicktivists, he says, are chasing the same analytics as tech giants or Instagram influencers: likes, shares, comments, and page views. To resolve this, White shares Dean’s prescription for the Party form: “social movements need to start learning the behaviors associated with progressive political parties — which would be winning elections, putting forth candidates and campaigning.” The End of Protest not only rejects clicktivism, but also any tactic that simply aims for attention and awareness. (Hence why one section of a chapter is subtitled “No More Marches.”)
There is no doubt that White and Dean’s admonitions are essential reminders for those who, like me, partake in clicktivism. Whether we comment on the news or share a petition, we must remember that none of this is a substitute for showing up on the streets, supporting a strike, or even winning elections. Still, the force of these critiques is less about abandoning digital platforms writ large and more about embracing a confluence of traditional and digital tactics. Clicktivism is not the be-all and end-all of political activity, but neither is holding a sign or blocking a highway; no movement tactic is inherently liberating, or affectively resonant, without the proper relationship between ends and means. Crowds and Party builds upon this point by suggesting that, while Twitter and Facebook are manifestations of capital, activities on these platforms can generate “the affective intensities associated with crowds – cascade effects, enthusiasm, band-wagoning, contagion and imitation.” The reality of this century is that digital platforms are an essential means by which people get news about both current events and activists’ events, information that can produce new affects and personal commitments.
One example of these affects in action can be seen from the outpouring of online support for the “NoDAPL” movement. In 2016, Native American water protectors challenged the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline which was set to cross native burial land and threaten to pollute local drinking water.
As lots of allies showed up to support the local protestors at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, many Facebook users “checked-in” at Standing Rock as well, hoping by so doing to disrupt the digital surveillance of protestors by law enforcement. While North Dakota’s police insisted that they were not using Facebook to monitor and target protesters, Sue Evans, spokesperson for the Standing Rock Sioux, said that the check-ins reflected distrust of the local authorities repressing dissent. Although the check-ins may not have mattered in the end, Facebook users were expressing solidarity with activists on-the-ground who were very engaged with social media. If the “water protectors” could only appeal to people physically in Standing Rock, and not to a wider audience, there may not have been enough clamor for President Obama to halt the pipeline (though Trump renewed it). Certainly it is right to say, as would Dean and White, that the DAPL would have faced no obstacle had the only activists been clicktivists. But this was not the case. Instead, it was the confluence of traditional and digital protest tactics that made NoDAPL a historic movement.
Content creators must be self-aware enough to know that they are not dismantling structures by themselves, but Dean and White overlook how the technologies of communicative capitalism must be retooled for radical ends by any progressive party that hopes to win. Ever since Barack Obama’s trailblazing use of digital campaigning, activist candidates must now become digital activists. Through social media, candidates and parties can control the narrative by releasing policy proposals that galvanize new supporters, demand attention from current leaders, or push a party further Left. The utility of social media is even apparent for protest candidates who do not intend to win a nomination, such as Alaska’s Mike Gravel. The former senator intends to reach sixty-five-thousand donors so that he can critique imperialism on the Democratic presidential debate stage. Additionally, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has skillfully used Twitter and Instagram to shift national attention to issues ranging from the Green New Deal to the extent that congressional staffers are underpaid. AOC is a legislator, not a clicktivist, and yet Dean and White would have to argue that her use of social media is for naught. On its own clicktivism is not a revolution, but revolutions must navigate the technologies that constitute our daily environment.
One organization which understands this is Means TV, a “post-capitalist streaming platform” founded by Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes. Rather than sell us a new product, their goal is to mobilize the energies we already give to capitalism’s streaming services for socialist projects. The website has a variety of videos, where contributors standing in front of a minimalistic white background, or asking questions on the street, make the case against capitalism. Although we watch their content as individuals, the message behind the content asks us to think and dream of larger alternatives.
Burton and Hayes keenly understand how a viral message can be affectively contagious: they designed the hit video that helped propel AOC to victory. One could easily say that Burton and Hayes are irredeemably trapped within communicative capitalism or that they just want more viewers sold on the “fantasy of participation.” But this line of thought would overlook that, until new political organizations arise, critiques of digital media are equally applicable to analog activism. No person can jumpstart the Party on their own, whether they share a Means TV video or organize a strike. The latter involves more effort, and deserves more plaudits, yet the two mediums are not at cross purposes.
Although it may always be dangerous for movements to engage with communicative capitalism – and its attendant issues of individualist fragmentation, or neutralization by tech giants – movements must seize the means of digital production to attract more participants, funding, and press attention. Clicktivism is not a silver bullet, but neither is it “selling out.” Means TV, for instance, has its own platform and refuses corporate funding, but I heard about them first from Facebook. That kind of publicity still matters.
Even Leon Trotsky, writing for Liberty magazine in 1935, hoped that “the science of publicity and advertising” would help the United States convince middle-class people to reject capitalism. Of course, capitalism remains in 2019, but it is clicktivists who know that the revolution must be publicized.
Adam Tomasi will be a graduate student in History at Northeastern University. He received his BA in History and Communication at Wake Forest University (’19), and competed on the intercollegiate debate circuit.