The Limits of "Clicktivism"
 — Bruce Hartford, 2017

"Clicktivism" refers to supporting online petitions and responding to donation requests by clicking on an email link or a website button. Last week I received a flood of emails from a dozen different internet-activist organizations engaged in asking me to donate money and/or "click here" to support or oppose this or that. It's not even noon yet and so far today I've received half a dozen more such requests.

I've been responding as a "Clicktivist" for quite some time, and it seems reasonable to now ask "How effective is it?" To folks who are obviously trying to do good that may seem like an intrusive question, but for decades people have questioned the efficacy of protests and though I have long supported nonviolent direct action I accept such queries as both legitimate and reasonable. So it seems fair now to ask, "How effective is clicktivism?"

I don't know how effective clicktivism is and one reason for my ignorance is that none of the clicktivist groups I regularly interact with do much reporting back to their members and supporters. For example, I've been on Move-On's list since 1998 and I don't recall ever seeing from them (or from any of the other groups) reports that answered questions like:

How many staff members work for them?
What to they actually do day-to-day other than send out email requests?
Who makes decisions and how are they chosen & held accountable?
Where is an annual financial report of income & expenses?

How many signatures were gathered on the petitions I signed?
Who were those petitions delivered to, and how?
What was the reaction of the officials who received the petitions?

Another question I'd like to ask is how does our side's progressive clicktivism compare to the clicktivism of our adversaries? When we deliver X- number of signatures in favor of reproductive rights or opposing a pipeline how many do the Tea Party or Koch-fronts deliver on the opposite side?

I might as well also ask where are the reports tallying how many people voted for which choice when we filled-in those "What Are Your Priorities?" online surveys? A cynic might wonder if lack of such result-reports indicate that they were simply fund-raising gimmicks which had no influence whatsoever on organizational decision-making by whomever it is that makes such decisions.

As someone who comes out of the civil rights and trade union traditions I believe that reporting back to your activists and members is an essential requirement for building and maintaining long-term trust and commitment.

And while I support the clicktivism model and will continue to be a clicktivist myself, it seems to me that there are some inherent weaknesses in this form of social activism we should think about.

We all know Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." And she's right so long as we add that those small groups eventually had to win majority political support among the many who don't and won't take active part themselves. But I doubt that Mead would have counted folk who simply click on a link as members of those "small groups of thoughtful committed citizens who succeed in changing the world."

It seems to me that clicktivism is essentially a "political-services" model. A kind of "you pay us and we do politics for you" concept.

Once there was a Labor Movement in this country where masses of workers took action on their own behalf, but today most unions are service-agencies where member dues are used to pay labor officials who perform contract, grievance, legislative lobbying, and other services for their members rather than the members being organized and mobilized to take action on their own behalf. The same is true for nonprofits that provide services to the poor and downtrodden rather than organizing them to fight for themselves.

Yes, I know clicktivism mobilizes masses of people to click on buttons adding their names to petitions, and some may even be mobilized to call elected government officials. But that's a far cry from the kind of active mass participation that built the Labor Movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights and student movements of the 1960s, the Womens Movement of the 1970s, and the Environmental Movement of the 1980s.

Those movements were built and sustained by local/chapter/project models in which people met face-to-face in living rooms, churches, and union halls where they learned basic political and organizing skills for themselves, did their own legislative lobbying, organized and participated in protests and strikes, and directly talked to and debated with their neighbors, coworkers, and classmates. That's what empowered those movements and spread them across the nation into every city, town, and hamlet.

es, building and sustaining union locals, organizing projects, discussion groups, and student chapters is hard. Very hard. It's not only hard, it's messy and time-consuming and difficult to centrally control. It's so much easier to collect donations online and deduct dues from paychecks to hire a small staff that does the work on behalf of the donors than to it is organize, train, & lead people to do it for themselves. It's easier, but it's not sufficient.

To be clear, I'm not saying that clicktivism is bad or harmful or that I won't do it anymore -- quite the contrary. What I am saying is that it isn't enough because there's no way in hell that clicktivism alone is going to defeat corporate greed or the politics of racial-hate and divisive bigotry. What we need more of now is old-fashioned organization and movement building that involves people at the grass-roots level in real face-to-face political activity

Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2017


Comments & Responses:

John Dittmer

Well said, Bruce. Which reminds me, I need to make a contribution to CRM Vets.

Constancia Dinky Romilly

Thank you Bruce for your thoughtful discussion of this problem. I'm hoping that maybe, just maybe, the "clicktivist only" folks will finally get off their duffs and back into the streets, not to mention making actual phone calls and sending actual letters to pols and papers.

Today I sent one snail mail letter and on-line letter to Obama re clemency for Leonard Peltier, called my representative to urge vote "No" on HR 11 (condemning UN vote on settlements) and tried to call both NY senators re voting for Warren's bill to force president-elect Trump to disclose and divest (sent on-line messages instead). Part of my "put my money where my mouth is" resolution to do more than "clictivate."

Marion Cunningham

Ditto, Dinky...(at the risk of "just clicking")!

Joan C. Browning

Bruce, I signed a thousand petitions and marched on Washington, Atlanta and Charleston hundreds of times — and by my best count, not a single petition or march did any good. Except that brief that Mitch Zimmerman filed on our behalf in the Michigan affirmative action law suit. So I do not sign petitions any more. I sometimes write public officials and have even emailed occasionally. Again, I have no evidence it matters to them, but makes me feel better. I believe that elected officials answer only to those who purchased them — and I don't have enough money to buy myself some elected officials. But carry on. I could be wrong.

Ed Dubinsky

Here is one counter example to Joan's experience. Martin Sostre ran a book store in Buffalo, NY where he sold important literature such Black Muslim and Malcolm X stuff. He was set up by the Buffalo police dept and convicted (wrongly) for distributing drugs. He spent more than 20 years including many years in Solitary Confinement in Dannemore because he refused to submit to anal seaches. In the 1970s, we formed a Martin Sostre Defense Committee in Potsdam, NY with other chapters around the country. This included a petition campaign consisting of letter to then Governor Hugh Carey. Carey released Martin at least in part because of the letters of which, he said he received about 600.

So I am glad, Joan, that you and others continue to write and email public officials. As Philip Berrigan once told, in parable form, our efforts may not change the public officals, but if we stop trying then they have changed us.

Joan C. Browning

Thank you Ed. Yes, I know of a very precious few very local issues where organized resistance worked, mostly on school closures. And yes, as I taught VISTA volunteers when I was southeast regional training director, we may not do much good for poor people but being a VISTA will be a life changing experience. So We must do whatever keeps us human, regardless of whether we get results. So I will still sign onto issues where I know the folks originating petitions — such as a recent statement of historians against most of the Trump agenda. But to echo Bruce, those organizations that don't give a damn about my opinion but want to "clickbait" me into donating money that I have no idea where it goes ..... not for me.

Ed Dubinsky

Joan, I agree with you completely.

Claire O'Connor

Thanks for this Bruce. SO glad you brought it up.

But can I challenge one small point — you are way more hopeful about outcome of clictivism. I believe it does little or nothing to mobilize people and maybe even makes mobilization even harder.

My two thoughts. First, I suspect most (not all) petitions are sometimes used primarily as a way to extract money without accountability. These days I usually respond to click requests with a question — If I were to donate, how would you be using my money. NEVER ONCE have I had a reply. No accountability available.

My second thought — Although I don't believe it is their intention, I think clickism may even diminish the possibility that it will engage and energize people. I believe it is more likely that many feel satisfied that they have DONE THEIR BIT for the cause. The result? A click and a small donation will mean, for many, that the problem will be solved and that is the extent of their responsibility.

Also, it is easy to check financial of non profits on their tax return through Guide Star. Past IRS filings are for viewing free. As you probably know the key figure for knowing if it is a respectable organization is to check the fund raising figure. It is on the front page and in and around item 16. That figure should be around 12% There may be other key expenses to check but the fundraising one says it all for me.

Thanks for thoughts

Jan Hillegas
I sign lots of online petitions because it's a way of doing something about national issues that otherwise I would be ignoring, given that there's little street/protest activism here [Jackson MS].

Having always been low-income and charge-card-less, no money is involved, just typing and clicking. It's better, to me, than sitting on the sidelines as numerous injuries are foisted upon us — and from time to time, emails bring word of victories.

Kathy Sarachilde

Thanks, Jan, for conveying what I do, too. I work my butt off for some things, and "click" as a show of support for others.

Mike Miller

This is a terrific piece. I like the way you sneak up on the reader, getting more deeply critical as you move along and then damning with faint praise.

On this point, "A cynic might wonder if lack of such result-reports indicate that they were simply fund-raising gimmicks which had no influence whatsoever on organizational decision-making by whomever it is that makes such decisions." I suspect that the people who run MoveOn do take the poll results seriously, at least so I've been told. But as I understand it, they backed off from a Sonoma County, CA effort to put something real on the ground. When there's something real in local places, local people want to decide. Isn't that one of the things democracy is supposed to be about?

Carol Hanisch

Bruce, I really liked this piece and my co-editor agrees we'd really like to print it on our blogzine Meeting Ground On Line

Daphne Muse

I click, call and/or email. Also, older activists who get arrested are having their Social Security benefits taken away. They are trying to jack us to the Moon at every turn.

Go well in the country of your heart, mind and soul.

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