I first joined Amnesty International back in the early 80s. I still have a thickish file containing carbon copies of the letters I wrote and sent back then, thwacked out over the hum of my portable electric typewriter. Despite my efforts to keep them informed, A.I. didn’t do a particularly good job of tracking me as I moved about from place to place in the following years, but, nevertheless, on and off, I’ve been sending protest messages under their aegis for some 30 years now.
But these days it’s a whole lot easier. These days I receive an email from them, outlining another outrage by an oppressive government somewhere, and I’m asked to simply ‘sign’ a petition. They have my details on hand already, so all I need do is click to the petition page and click one more time. Done.
It’s called ‘clicktivism,’ and, quite rightly, its comparative value is questionable. In the 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Siva Vaidhyanathan took this somewhat indirect swipe at the practice: “… instead of organizing, lobbying and campaigning… we rely on expressions of disgruntlement as a weak proxy for real political action. Starting or joining a Facebook protest group suffices for many as political action.”
Writing in The Guardian a year earlier, Micah White made a much more direct attack: “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.” White points out that clicktivism is largely activism co-opted by the techniques of online marketing. The greater the emphasis on click-rates, bloated petition numbers and other marketing metrics, the cheaper the value of the message, according to White, resulting in “a race to the bottom of political engagement.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that organizations like Amnesty pass their contact lists to other like organizations, presumably for compensation, without soliciting consent. I did sign on with Avaaz, but I’ve never asked to receive emails from SumOfUs, Care2 Action Alerts, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Plan Canada, the Council of Canadians, All Out, Change.org or Care Canada, but I do. I will readily admit that many of those emails go unopened.
It’s a difficult phenomenon to come to terms with ethically. These organizations are undoubtedly staffed by well-meaning people who genuinely believe they are making a difference. And I’m sure that sometimes they do. Yet there is also no doubt that the greatly facilitated process that clicktivism represents degrades more on-the-ground forms of political protest, and allows people like myself to make essentially meaningless contributions to worthy causes. ‘Facilitate’ may be the operative word here, as in facile, meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “too simple; not showing enough thought or effort.”
December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950. Last year Amnesty International organized the sending of more than 1.8 million messages to governments everywhere on that date, asking them to respect the rights of people and communities under threat of persecution. To their credit, in addition to urging their members to send messages, Amnesty is encouraging its members to organize or attend an event in their community or workplace on December 10. They have targeted seven different cases of human rights abuse from around the globe for action. These include Dr. Ten Aung, who was given a 17-year jail sentence in Myanmar last year after attempting to keep the peace between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohinyga Muslims; Ihar Tsikhanyuk, who has faced threats, intimidation and beatings in Belarus for attempting to register a group in support of LGBTI rights, and Badia East, from Nigeria, who, along with many of her neighbours, was left destitute and without compensation after authorities destroyed her home last February.
The problem with my problem with clicktivism is that it pales in comparison to the problems faced by these brave people on a daily basis. And like so many other new processes made possible by digital technology, the change represented by online activism is not about to reverse itself. We keep our eyes forward, think critically, and do what we can. I’ll try to write a letter on December 10.