The drawbacks of Online Activism + Is Opportunism such a bad thing? A conversation with Advocacy Leaders

Spent an hour last week zooming with a dozen senior advocacy types from a variety of international NGOs, who were on a webinar hosted by the International Civil Society Centre. Really smart, interesting people, and here are two subjects that caught my attention after I had talked a bit about my Covid as critical juncture paper (powerpoint here – please steal).

What are the side effects of activism moving online?

If you’re a blogger, life is really rather exciting right now – my numbers are up by over half, presumably thanks to lots of people in lockdown with nothing better to do. But ego-boosts aside, what are the implications of a mass move to online activism (because any other kind looks almost impossible)? This matters because as lockdown eases, some things will revert to the status quo ante, while others will decide to stick to their new incarnation. Which way should activism jump?

Judging by the conversation, there are serious negatives about activism staying online:

Exclusion: some groups are better connected, or more comfortable with social media, than others. They will come to dominate. An environmental activist once complained to me that for all the participatory hand waving, at meetings the last person talking is ‘always the 30-something bloke with the can of lager’. What’s the online equivalent?

Stultifying echo chambers: some of the best advocacy involves ‘awkward allies’ – individuals or organizations that disagree on many things coming together for a common purpose, and producing a lot of diversity and good ideas. My favourite example is the Ethical Trading Initiative, where we managed some tricky chemistry between corporates, unions and NGOs, but got some really good results.

By contrast, online activism encourages monoculture – the echo chambers of the woke. That risks producing a paucity of imagination, and a language that no-one outside the filter bubble can even understand, let alone be inspired by.

A smaller Overton Window: social media seems to demonstrate pronounced herd instincts. No-one talks about topics ‘trending’ in the pub or at the school gates in the way they do on twitter and elsewhere. The risk is that there is a narrower range of issues that get traction and if yours isn’t one of them (eg child rights during a Covid conversation that focuses primarily on its effects on the elderly) you either become invisible or are driven to opportunism (see above)

Speed is a problem: the online world is characterized by speed. The half life of a tweet – the time it takes for it to make half its overall impressions – is 18 minutes. But inclusive advocacy takes time, building up relationships, enabling excluded individuals and communities to find a voice and a platform.

Learning by Failing: Many of the big ‘aha’ moments in my life came about through personal failure and humiliation. Those are the lessons that stick. The trouble is that online failure is just not as powerful as a full in-the-flesh screw up. And because it is less immediate and undeniable, it’s more tempting to find an excuse or an alibi, and carry on doing dumb stuff.

If some/all of activism is going to remain online, we need to find answers to these. Maybe some will correct themselves, e.g. perhaps exclusion will diminish as more and more people become digital natives. But the other problems look more permanent. How do we build trust in online relationships and  coalitions with unusual suspects and awkward allies? How do we get non-trending topics into the public conversation? Are some platforms slow enough to allow greater inclusion (move over slow food, how about slow clicktivism).

Is Opportunism such a bad thing really?

I banged on in the critical junctures paper about how much I dislike it when NGOs jump on a disaster bandwagon and say ‘my campaign for X was right and important before Covid, and now because of Covid, I am even righter’. I fear it opens campaigners to accusations of opportunism and reputational damage. But is there any evidence for that? Short answer, not that I have seen. So is it just a case that liberals and progressives (I think I’m still in that camp) worry too much about this kind of thing and end up full of self-censoring doubt?

What is certain is that the other side don’t have too many scruples about jumping on the nearest bandwagon – Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, cites the example of how proponents of private education in the US managed to turn Hurricane Katrina to their advantage: “Within 19 months, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately-run charter schools.” According to the American Enterprise Institute, “Katrina accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.”

So come on FP2P hivemind, have you seen examples where activist opportunism has actually prompted a backlash, or am I worrying needlessly? I ran this past Claudia Arisi, who raised the drawbacks of online activism in the webinar, and she offered the ‘nature is healing’ meme mocking environmentalists claiming that nature had regained its space during lockdown. See here and here.

Other suggestions please!

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5 Responses to “The drawbacks of Online Activism + Is Opportunism such a bad thing? A conversation with Advocacy Leaders”
  1. Such an insightful piece. Got me reflecting on #TheBeatContinues, an online popular platform created by 25 young and energetic population from Tanzania, Ghana and Sierra Leone to passionately communicate their desire to end Malaria and build a strong public health system that can take on any challenge including COVID-19. Thank you.

  2. Hans Peter Schmitz

    I think the problem of ‘activism staying online’ is becoming less and less of an issue along with researchers moving beyond the ‘slacktivism’ debates. Dave Karpf, formerly Sierra Club, and now professor at GWU covers this well in his recent ‘After Clicktivism’ piece (and his other stuff). His academic work is based on having been an activist.

    Opportunism isn’t a problem per se as long as organizations understand that ‘digital’ is not just another tool, but the present and the future. It has to be mainstreamed and championed by leadership willing to open up organizational boundaries and embrace the shift from staff-led to supporter-led advocacy.

  3. Jo M

    I’d be interested to know who in particular the group was worried was being excluded in current online activism? Of course, many people are excluded from online activism, but I think just as many are excluded from offline activism due to so many things such as not being able to travel to a place, not being physically able to take part, not being comfortable to speak aloud, not speaking the same language as people they are in close physical proximity with etc etc. Are the exclusions created by online activism any worse or different? In my personal experience, online activism allows me to be part of many more conversations with many more people, but I realise this is just my set of circumstances.

  4. San

    Great piece- I’ve tried to track down the actual academic source of the claim that the half life of a tweet is 18 minutes – and haven’t found it. Just goes from one website to another. I’m actually quite curious to know if that data is accurate.

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