Written by: Verena Kitowski
New technologies and crowd-sourcing have led to a mutual influence of consumer power and web-activism. This has been a growing phenomenon during recent years with phenomenal success for humanitarian, political and civic causes. Millions of signatures have been collected for petitions from all around the world within very short timeframes and events like COP21 showed how online activities help support activism on the streets. Is this ultimate global citizenship and another channel for empowered consumers to express their genuine interest in challenges worldwide? Or is it ‘slacktivism’ and far away from the core principle of activism?
Traditional activism and the crowd
The world economy has been working globally in a highly interconnected setting for decades, tied to global politics and environmental issues. On the other hand, citizens as consumers have been rather passive under the influence of mass media and were bound to local and national spheres of participation. The transformation of the consumption world due to growing connectivity and social media grew the power of the masses (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). Nowadays, the speed and the critical mass that can be mobilized through the internet is immense, even though online engagement is still excluding people who do not have the knowledge or means for technology.
Activism in itself has a long tradition on a local reach and mostly the political sphere. Events of recent times, such as the Arab Spring, have shown that new information technologies play a major role in protest, mostly in the context of authoritarian regimes (Lotan et al., 2011). The evolution towards today’s status of highly interconnected groups of people fighting for a common cause has happened in two steps. So-called ‘Cyberactivism 1.0’ was characterized through the commercial spread of websites and internet-based communication, for instance through emails. Later, the rapid growth of social media gave way to ‘Cyberactivism 2.0’, which now uses all available channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, on a global level with a constant flow of permanently updated data (Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Garcia, 2014). Yet, this new kind of digital activism is not only relevant for political causes, but for all kinds of civic, social and environmental matters.
According to Clay Shirky (2008), innovative communication tools that support web-activism, are not so powerful because they initiate collective action, but because they resolve its barriers. In practical terms, they give people the freedom to decide for themselves when to sign a petition and how much background information they want to collect. This is not dependent on coincidence anymore, for example meeting a petitioner on the street when shopping, who only brings across his personal opinions. New communication tools also give people the opportunity to spread their cause to friends easily, for example without having to spend much money on postage. Therefore, much more people have become empowered to become active through the internet over the course of the last years.
Technological progress has not only had influence on web-activism, but fuelled the overarching power of consumers. This evolution has moved from information-based power (consumption of content and creation of simple content) to network-based power (for example sharing petitions via email) to crowd-based power, which enables pooling and structuring of resources for the benefit of the group as well as the individuals. Crowd-based power shows itself in different phenomena, such as crowd-funding (e.g. Kickstarter) or crowd-creation (e.g. concept of Wikipedia) (Labrecque et al. 2013).
Another crowd-phenomena is ‘crowd-sourcing’, which was first coined by Jeff Howe in an article for Wired magazine in 2006 with examples of different forms of crowdsourcing from the photograph industry to backyard tinkerers supporting corporate R&D departments. The white paper definition he uses is “Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (Howe, n.d.).
Crowd-sourcing has the benefit of speed to collect information, which might be much more diverse depending on the background of the participants. It also spreads awareness for certain topics and allows engagement, which is particularly important in democratic policy-making and social causes. Because of the high potential for citizen empowerment, crowd-sourcing for governmental policy-making is being researched more and more, as a report for the Finnish parliament shows (Aitamurto, 2012). However, policy-making in this context has to be considered a separate issue from web-activism as it again only impacts national matters through participation of the respective people.
How does web-activism work?
Apart from social media activities, there is a multitude of specific platforms today that host online petitions and are more or less involved in non-digital activities. The platforms might have different characteristics, objectives or main themes, but they all use similar tools.
One of the most prominent NGOs engaged in web-activism is Avaaz with almost 43mio members from 194 countries. The empowering objective in the mission statement is to “organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want” (Avaaz, 2016). By working to make this change, Avaaz stresses to be completely member-funded and fully democratically accountable. The organization doesn’t accept any corporate or governmental sponsors that might influence its agenda, but fully relies on its ‘online-community’ (Avaaz, 2016). Because Avaaz’ work is rather political, the organization is often the target for more than one party of interest. This seriousness and relevance of Avaaz’ work is illustrated by repeated cyber-attacks on the organization’s technological systems by government agencies or large corporations, according to the CEO and co-founder Ricken Patel (Butler, 2013).
Avaaz bases its work on the system of TOC, which stands for Theory of Change, and which ensures not to be an elaborate channel for complaints of individuals (Avaaz, 2016). Thus, Avaaz work is not only about empowerment, but mostly about having impact, bringing the most radical changes possible. With this approach, the momentum of the members’ energy can be steered by only selecting cases that have a probability to succeed. On the other hand, platforms such as Change.org work without this filter and allow all initiated petitions to go online. The logic behind these two practices might follow strategies: on the one hand generating as much momentum as possible on selected topics, on the other hand representing a broad motivation for change, which also allows local projects to find supporters.
Is the like-button really activism?
In 2013, UNICEF Sweden ran a critical online campaign against ‘slacktivism’ with the key message “Likes don't save lives. Money does” to critique the unwillingness of consumers to donate money, but instead become a follower on Facebook (Khazan, 2013). It was the first organization tackling actively the phenomenon of so-called ‘slacktivism’, which blends the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’. It is mostly used with a negative connotation because it describes the disconnection between the minimal behaviour on social media and mobilization, for example through giving a ‘like’ on Facebook to a cause without any further actions (Cerise, 2015). However, there are positive effects of ‘slacktivism’ such as resource-saving growth of awareness and the initiation for debates. There is even research which shows that the engagement in a rather shallow activity online increases the probability for additional action like micro-donations (Knibbs, 2013). Therefore, the question needs to be asked if all organizations and activist groups use their social media communication in an efficient way and to its full potential.
Ricken Patel, the CEO of Avaaz, also claims that web-activism does not end with only one click, but many times with supplementary actions such as sending emails, making calls, communicating about the issue and eventually going to local demonstrations for that matter (Economist, 2010).
One specific tool, the online petition illustrates that some points of critique are short-sighted. A petition used to be a rather ordinary tool to collect signatures and symbolically visualized the mass of supporters. In defence of the degrading terms ‘slacktivism’, or ‘clicktavism’, think about the way such signature lists were collected. It is not realistic to think that there is a highly-committed citizen behind every signature. It is probably rather someone returning a favour to a neighbour, a lost-in-thought mother at a parents’ evening or a hectic shopper in the mall who doesn’t want to spend any more minute listening to the petitioner. In this case, technology offered new opportunities for web activism in the sense of crowd-sourcing.
Web-activism and big business
Even if digital activism for political and humanitarian matters are still disputable, the influence of growing consumer power on business organizations and brands is undeniably strong, as many examples have shown in the past when corporate activities were put in the spotlight of activists.
One current example for the power and global impact of crowd-based activism is the case of the controversial harbour project Abbot Point off the Australian Northeast-coast. The project has been highly disputed for several reasons. On the background of global warming and rising carbon emissions, the Australian government has been criticized strongly for its pro-coal mining policies in general, but this case is delicate, as the harbour is situated in close distance to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system and World Heritage Site. Environmental issues resulting from the necessary dredging of millions of tons of seabed, have alarmed a multitude of organizations and agencies who have been working for years to stop the mega-project (such as the UNESCO pressuring to put the reef on the list of endangered heritage sites). Eventually Adani, the responsible Indian mining corporate, has been imposed with restrictions and conditions for example on where to dump dredge spoil (Medhora, 2015). Even though the Australian government approved the continuation of the project in late 2015 (Cox, 2015), Adani’s financial planning for investment has suffered (Medhora, 2015). One of the factors for this, was the stop of a direct investment of Deutsche Bank. It was stopped with the help of Campact, a German web-based NGO, who collected more than 200 000 supporters for an online petition with prominent support of WWF. The petition list was handed over at the annual shareholder meeting in 2014, accompanied with colourful protest outside the building. The pressure on the bank was well-covered by the media, especially after Campact and environmental organizations collected donations for a one-page add in the Financial Times that finally forced Deutsche Bank to consider their image damage (Methmann, 2014).
This example illustrates vividly the paradox of the whole phenomenon: German web-activists, motivated by environmental concerns, can have an impact on Australian legislation towards an Indian corporation. This shows how consumer power shapes business decisions in a way that was not possible without new technological tools. And not only makes it global issues out of local events, but also global events are interpreted locally. Therefore, it is crucial for the business environment to understand the historical dependency of technology along with the rising impact of social media and crowd-sourcing which always function in the context of government and culture (Berthon et al., 2012).
Web-activism, as a collective action, is in its fundamentals supposedly even more complex than crowd-creation (Shirky, 2008) and other crowd-based activities that businesses are more and more implementing into their processes. But why are tools that enable web-activism perceived a threat by traditional institutions, be it business, governmental or religious? Why are industries and organizations of all kinds challenged by these new patterns of digital action? What Shirky calls the erosion of their “institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination” (2008, p.143), an activist would possibly call “they cannot do what they want anymore without anybody noticing”. Probably, big business has already noticed.
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