How can we build on clicktivism to harness diversity?

Becca Bunce, 3 November 2017

Just over three years ago, I was with my friend Robyn, painstakingly editing the first IC Change petition copy, distracted every so often by glimpses of the Houses of Parliament in my peripheral vision.

A week before that Robyn had asked me a seemingly innocuous question on Facebook: “Do you fancy doing a petition with me? It’s to get the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention [on ending violence against women].”

Digital campaigning opened the doors for a more inclusive campaign.

In that moment, we were unaware that we had co-founded a volunteer-run campaign. Little did we know that this campaign would build a coalition of over 50 supporting organisations and that two years later parliament would be firmly in our sights as we mobilised thousands of people to support the successful passage of a private member’s bill through parliament to create the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women Act 2017 (IC Act).

To do this, we used and built on the power of clicktivism. Digital campaigning opened the doors for a more inclusive campaign, and without digital I – and many others – could not have been involved.

Clicktivism is legitimate engagement

Parliament was in the corner of my eye that day because I was in St Thomas’ Hospital. This is my normal. Hospital beds, oxygen masks, NHS tea and a hearty dose of pain relief.

My world at that point had the physical boundary of the curtain around my bed. I couldn’t speak due to lack of breath. However, my ability to take action was not limited, thanks to digital solutions, and the willingness of the rapidly expanding team to accept and develop these solutions.

Much of this early activity – writing petitions and asking people to share – would be considered clicktivism. Or, to others, “slacktivism” or “lazy activism”. Whether signing a petition or tweeting your MP, clicktivism as a form of action is regarded as not enough.

We need to be clear about who we are excluding when we de-legitimise clicktivism: people with children – particularly women, disabled people, carers, people for whom speaking up is risky, people who happen not to have a degree in politics or the ear of someone with influence. And there are more people for whom the barriers in traditional campaigning are too high.

We need to be clear about who we are excluding when we de-legitimise clicktivism.

When we say: “your action is not enough”, but don’t give people alternative ways of engaging, we are effectively saying: “your voices do not belong here; your voices do not matter”. We are telling people they have no role in creating change. And then we wonder why people disengage.

To harness the power of digital in campaigning we need to move beyond the idea that “clicktivism” is lazy activism. If I hadn’t engaged with petitions and social media I wouldn’t have seen digital as a way to make change happen. Nor would I have ended up accidentally co-directing a campaign.

Clicktivism works as a tactic

One of the great moments of the campaign last year was watching an MP rearrange their diary to attend the second reading of the bill following a well-reasoned discussion with a supporter on Twitter. All too often tweeting and signing petitions are disregarded – even when they are successful. Yet we have seen multiple successes from digital actions including No More Page 3, Jane Austen on the £10 note and the government passing the IC Act.

Clicktivism is often most successful when used alongside other campaigning tactics. The difficulty is that many of the more traditional tactics for campaigns exclude large numbers of people. Part of the power of petitions and social media is that they have shown that it’s possible to overcome significant barriers to engagement. Now a critical challenge is how we can design – or redesign – digital tools that allow a diverse range of people to engage and have impact.

Diversity driving digital

The Istanbul Convention covers multiple forms of violence against all women, and calls on all sections of society to respond. This meant our campaign needed to do the same. So we built a team and a wider coalition that brought in a diversity of backgrounds and experience. Diversity was not about tokenism. Diversity brought a range of perspectives that enabled strong strategic decisions and developed our campaign understanding.

Diversity brought a range of perspectives that enabled strong strategic decisions.

With minimal resources, digital was necessary for success, and in many ways need shaped our digital use. Volunteers who joined us brought their “normal” and their needs. Digital helped us adapt to religions, responsibilities, working patterns, and geography, and to ensure each person’s well-being. Digital facilitated engagement and allowed for a wider network, which in turn enabled us to have a broader sense of leadership and wider challenge.

Digital hindering diversity

However, we quickly found digital spaces were replicating barriers found in the real world.

In our rush to make use of digital tools, all too often civil society is forgetting to shape them. Perhaps this is because organisations designing campaigns don’t have a diverse group of people involved in producing campaigns and signing off budgets and strategies. We need to look to who our leaders are and who we hope them to be, and engage with how current structures are holding those people back.

In our rush to make use of digital tools, all too often civil society is forgetting to shape them.

If every civil society organisation sent an email to Twitter today asking them to add image descriptions to tweets with any image, video or gif, I imagine that would get resolved pretty quickly. Similarly, if we all asked Eventbrite and Facebook to make accessibility and childcare mandatory fields for events, they probably would. We also need to challenge the digital tools that we use as teams, such as Slack and Google Drive. We have to ask ourselves why we don’t see improving these digital structures as a priority, and yet expect to diversify the people engaging with – and leading – our campaigns.

Part of the power of clicktivism is that it enables a diverse range of people to engage with, design and lead campaigns. As a disabled woman, digital offered many of the solutions that allowed me to not just engage but also lead a campaign.

We need to think about how we can build on this principle of inclusion to create better digital infrastructure for future campaigns, because at the moment many of the platforms and tools used for campaigning are excluding the people we seek to engage. To harness the power of digital for future campaigning we need leaders in the sector to work together to make digital campaigning more accessible.

Becca Bunce is co-founder of women’s rights group IC Change and a campaigner for disabled feminist group Sisters of Frida.