First up was AdBusters guy Micah White via a pre-recorded video. More or less he thinks that clicktivism is detrimental to activism. I discovered at this point that clicktivism is basically measuring the effectively of a campaign through the use of statistics, such as the number of click-throughs. He said that focussing on stats can miss the political contact; in essence metrics takes precedence over meaning. He said that he thought that the Internet is best for meme warfare; to quickly disseminate information, whilst ignoring how many click-throughs there are. He ended by saying that clicktivism is effectively accepting consumerism and that we need to stop looking at our logs and get back to the passion of activism.
I thought he had a reasonable point there.
Next to speak was the only female panelist, Naomi McAuliffe from Amnesty International, who appeared in the flesh. It started as a bit of self-promotion for AI and their very successful, but note, very worthy, online campaigns. She said that they have many links between their online work and all the people they connect with and that Fac€book groups, and online petitions add to the noise, that digital activism shouldn't supplant normal activism. She highlighted the Eyes On Nigeria ( http://www.eyesonnigeria.org/) web site and Map Kabeira ( http://mapkibera.org/), which maps out who lives in the Nairobian shanty town and where the facilities are so that they can lobby local government. She highlighted their recent Shell campaign where they used Googl€ Map$ to locate where actions on petrol stations happened. So all in all this part was more of a showcase of what AI had been up to.
Next up was Tom Steinberg, who started by saying that although he is paid to believe that the Internet is great and that it's use is really important and epoch changing, he was going to try and temper that belief. He mentioned that a recent paper by Richard Kahn found that those who are politically active on-line were more likely to be politically active offline, those active on the net, but not politically might sign the odd petition, and everyone else was more or less just as apathetic as always. He summarised by saying that what we need to do is to provide the academic world with useful information justifying whether social media is working and that we also need to put demands on them to actually use evidence properly and produce some decent, evidence-based, studies, which they don't appear to have done to date.
Once again as a video, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen from University of Oxford said that he thought this very debate has taken up too much time ('hmm yeah', thought the reporter) He said that offline activism, such as wearing a t-shirt, displaying a bumper sticker, is just as effective as online. He said that there is activism and slacktivism both off and on line. I thought that he waffled on a lot to make the basic point that digital activism is not a panacea cure for activism, but rather a set of tools that may or may not be used in different situations. He highlighted the issues surrounding applicability of the technology in certain situations and the control of it being in the hands of self-interested third parties. If, for example, the issue is highly political, it could be that the technology is withdrawn by the powers that be: for example the recent Wikileaks funding issue.
Ending the teleprescencial presentations with another in the flesh appearance, Sam Smith talked about clicktivism and churnavism (the same story going round and round and round the web). He highlighted a Fac€book group he created to point out that there was no rush to form a new UK government back in May 2010. He said it got lots and lots of members really quickly, but I couldn't really work out whether it had achieved anything, except satisfy a lot of Fac€book users. He then went on to say that 38 Degrees take clicktivism to it's self-destructive end and his talk descended into rather a direct scathing attack on 38 Degrees, not entirely disagreed with by yours truly. He highlighted a particular activity where the success was being measured by 38 Degrees in terms of the number of people taking part, rather than the coherency and quality of the content, nor the measurable effectiveness of the overall campaign (see http://bit.ly/38pollute). Behind the chagrin, he main point was that success isn't just about clicks, but rather the fact that it's actually useful and effective.
David Babbs from 38 Degrees was up next and chose not to directly respond to Sam's accusations, but rather stick to what he wanted to say (he saved his defence until the questions section later on) He said that 38 Degrees's definition of activism was about people coming together to change things. The tools should be judged by their impact: whether people were empowered and decided to get involved. David went on to defend 38 Degrees involvement in the campaign to stop the government selling off forestry commission land by citing the many people that had written in to say how empowered they were. He said that digital tools are allowing activists to take their campaigns beyond their own activist peers, and that they grant the ability to work fast and act quickly, to pool resources. He thought that if we can move beyond the clicktivism debate, we could move on to discuss things such as what it all means for our engagement with decision makers? How does a new digitally enabled activism digisphere interact with governments and traditional NGOs, etc?
Then Eric Lee took the stand and opened with the statement that the debate as to whether we ought to use digital technology is a sterile one: we use whatever we need to to do what we want to. He debunked the idea that individuals using technology alone are bringing down dictatorships (my own thought is that having the army on your side is somewhat useful). He said that what happened in Egypt was the culmination of years and years of struggle and political organising, culminating in the sit-in in Tahir Sq and the holding of general strikes. This was not the case for the Libyans, who did not have the social structures, and entities such as trades unions to overcome their despotic regime (oh and they didn't have the army on their side either). He cited the case of Joanne Delaney, a 22 year old shop steward who was sacked from he job at Dunnes Stores in Belfast for wearing her union pin to work. After literally months of getting nowhere they came to LabourStart ( http://www.labourstart.org/) who waged an online campaign that flooded the Net with messages. Within two weeks the online protest had triggered a wave of protest in the real world that caused the company to reconsider its policy and reinstate Ms Delaney ( http://libcom.org/news/article.php/joanne-delaney-dunnes-240206). In short: technology + solidarity can create change.
And to finish the panel, Paul Hilder took the stage and started speaking about Malcolm Gladwell, but to be honest this was a bit too in the zone for me and I didn't understand what he was on about. He said that what just happened in Egypt and that what's going on in the world at present is much more interesting that the facile debates in the West. He thinks Fac€book is a useless tool for organising social change per se, but that the role it played in Egypt was at least complementary in creating the change. He said the Internet can help, but it's not solely the answer. He directly responded to the first panelist, Micah White, saying that his anecdote about a bad clicktivist campaign didn't mean that it was all pointless: we shouldn't throw the baby out with bathwater. He said that the campaigns he'd been involved in had shown him that people have come together to change things all around the world and spread a simple contagious idea: that people all around the world want a better world. He said that clicktivism allows people to test out their theories and ideologies and allows people to become more engaged with different movements.
Then there was a short summary and we got to talk to the person next to us about what we've heard: We had a bit of a chat, generally agreeing that Eric was the most eloquent and that the whole debate about clicktivism vs rem, non-clicktivism was a bit pointless.
Then there was a few question, so of which came in via Twitter. To summarise the main points of these:
* None really knew why were the 2011 protests against Mubarak successful, when the 2005 ones weren't. Paul thought it was just a case of the time and circumstances being right for it in 2011.
* AI said that they don't take tweets as being gospel, but they do have tweets coming in from known, and trusted sources. Said that Twitt€r is helpful for getting information about what's going on on the ground.
* There was some waffling on about clicktivism and a bit of a head to head with Sam and David, with Sam criticising 38 Degrees for them not crediting other groups for the success of the forests campaign, and David defending this.
* I piped up about how the Net means that the mainstream can no longer ignore coverage of political actions when people are getting the information from direct social media sources.
* Paul thought there is both great promise and great danger in that the youth are digitalised: could it be that we unite against our despots, or do we fragment into self-interest? We shall know perhaps in 10 years time. There is a need for establishments to become more transparent and more engaged with the public in general.
* There was the warning that the cat is out of the bag. The right, e.g. the Tea Party have learnt what only 38 Degrees, MoveOn, et al, knew before.
Overall it was kind of interesting. I liked what Eric had to say the best, I think that he had the best overall understanding of both the social and digital aspects. This was probably due to him being older and more experienced than the rest. I thought that some of them were so in their zone of clicktivism that they didn't explain themselves very well, but I do admit to not really knowing anything about it until I got there.
There was no mention of hacktivism and groups like Anonymous, who are operating within the medium of cyberspace to make cyber attacks: I think that this is a good example of effective use of the net, that was perhaps missed out, but more probably not relevant to the debate.
It did seem a bit pointless really and that the overall sense I got was that the Net, email, lists, blogs, Fac€b00k groups, Twitt€r and the rest are all just tools to add to the battery of those that we have to make social change, such as mobile and terrestrial phones, text messaging, leafleting, placards, and perhaps most importantly getting out their on the streets, talking to people, making our voices heard and showing solidarity with others' social struggles, on or off the Net.