Digital ‘Clicktivists’ hold giant political conference

Petition website Avaaz is asking its 17 million members to decide its direction for 2013. Online activism could be the future of politics. But can we really change the world with one click?

After the shooting of 15-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai last year, a website launched a petition for female education in Pakistan. Over 800,000 added their names; the list was presented to Pakistan’s President, and soon its National Assembly had signed a bill on education for all.

The force behind the campaign was Avaaz – an online community of 17 million members in 194 countries. Now, after five years of campaigns on issues from Palestinian statehood to animal rights and internet freedom, it is applying its crowd-sourced power to itself. In a huge online summit this week, Avaaz members will contribute to virtual polls and debates, shaping its guiding principles, organisational structure and campaigns.

Politics is adapting to a digital world, so this is big news. Petition sites like Avaaz and 38 degrees are booming. Their success has prompted governments to promise they will take action on causes that can prove support. But as they grow, such organisations are coming under fire for damaging the nature political activism.

How? According to critics, ‘clicktivism’ means disposable politics. It lets people click a button then sit back, feeling they have changed something when they have done very little: like junk food, petitions are easy to consume, but add little that is positive.

Successful political battles, argues critic Malcolm Gladwell, involve much more. The Civil Rights Movement, he says, saw people take to the streets and lobby tirelessly, often risking imprisonment or worse. This enormous investment created real results: because internet campaigns ask little from many, they are unlikely to make much difference.

This paradox was suggested in last year’s Kony 2012 campaign – a viral film demanding action against warlord Joseph Kony’s use of child soldiers. Over 100 million watched and shared the film, but when the time came for an international day of action, few took to the streets. Kony remains at large, while critics say the campaign’s online supporters endorsed a solution that was overly simplistic – even damaging.

Click to change the world

Many activists are not surprised that such movements fall flat. Change, they say, requires hard work and sophisticated understanding. All clicktivism takes is easily-forgotten outrage: it is a feel-good distraction, allowing people to ignore the deep-rooted and difficult causes of injustice.

Supporters say online campaigns harness the power of the masses, creating a unified voice that cannot be ignored. When so many feel alienated by problems they see in the world, epetitions can create a momentum to really make the world a better place.

You Decide

  1. Do online petitions have a positive effect on people’s political engagement and involvement?
  2. What is more powerful: many people being loosely engaged in political issues, or a smaller percentage committing absolutely to a cause?

Activities

  1. Create your own online petition on an issue you feel strongly about.
  2. Pick one of the petitions shown in the graphic. Research the story behind the campaign, and the response to it, and write an analysis of how important online activism proved to be in making a change.

Some People Say...

“Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. Indeed, that's all who ever have.’ Margaret Mead”

What do you think?

Q & A

How do I get involved?
It’s very easy – there’s a vast range of petitioning sites, and most allow anyone to become a member and submit a petition about an issue they feel strongly about.
So will governments listen?
Perhaps. Most successful campaigns require more than a petition. The campaign for girl’s education, for example, was accompanied by demonstrations in Pakistan itself, and a growing sense in government that education was a problem: a petition increased pressure, but did not get the bill alone.
What other issues have been successful?
In 2012 Avaaz ran a campaign against child sex trafficking, prompting Hilton Hotels to pledge action against the trade. The UK’s most popular petition was less generous – it demanded that those involved in London’s riots lose their state benefits.

Word Watch

Malala Yousafzai
A campaigner for female education in Pakistan’s Swat valley, Malala rose to prominence last year in tragic circumstances, after the Taliban shot her in the head in an attempt to end her campaign. She survived the attack and was treated in the UK, where she and her family have been granted citizenship. The Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s North West, continues to be wracked with political turmoil, and the Taliban exert a powerful influence which puts girls’ education and women’s rights in jeopardy.
Avaaz
The name of the website comes from the word for ‘voice’ in several Asian, European and Middle Eastern languages.
38 degrees
This petitions organisation takes its name from the angle at which a human-created avalanche is most likely, evoking the power of mass movement to create change.
Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement was a campaign for legal equality which took place in countries all over the world between the 1950s and the 1980s. In the United States, the movement was predominantly focused on equal rights for black Americans, who fought against segregation, oppression and prejudice by defying the law with sit-ins and peaceful protest.

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