The core of this essay is to outline the different methods in which online political participation is employed and assess their effectiveness in conjunction with more traditional methods of political advocacy. I will come to a conclusion based on primary and secondary research as to whether or not online participation in political and civic affairs can be seen as an effective means of achieving aims, or whether it does not produce a significant effect and undermines traditional forms of political engagement. I will be analysing how online participation is used on its own as well as alongside existing offline methods of advocacy and I will analysis the ramifications of new modes of political involvement that have arisen as a direct result of the internet.
Since the internet became a popular medium of social engagement and not just a platform for information and file sharing, the amount of activities that citizens engage in has increased substantially and political and civic engagement has become widespread across the web. This has given rise to various forms of criticism both positive and negative regarding the effectiveness of online participation in such matter and the effects that they might have on wider political participation in the everyday lives of users. The issue is of hotly contested debate as it is often seen that online political and civic advocacy leads to a sense of apathy and ignorance amongst those who engage in it and fundamentally undermine traditional forms of involvement such as voting and organised protest.
In this dissertation I will analyse the key methods of participation online and measure them against the key critique that they draw. I will look at contemporary examples of where online participation has had a positive or negative effect, drawing on discussion from prominent academics and research to support my arguments.
I will address the claim that online political and civic engagement is an ineffective means of participation that ultimately does not have an effect in real time policy decisions and does little more than make the individual feel a sense of self-gratification whilst not further engaging in the issue (Hindman, 2009). Furthermore I will address the concern raised by many observers that online forms of participation create a lazy alternative that undermines the effectiveness of traditional methods of political engagement by providing an ineffective alternative for citizens with the idea that this alternative will be adequate to real time involvement in shaping policy (Putnam, 2000).
Following this I will draw on examples to undermine these arguments and assess the counterview that whilst these arguments appear on the surface to be valid criticisms on online advocacy, they fail to look deeper into the changing shape of political engagement that is ultimately moving away from traditional means such as voting and more toward grass roots coordination due to a lack of faith in the institutions of government in addressing political concerns of citizens.
My hypothesis for this dissertation will conclude with this theory: that whilst some online participation is ineffective and serves as little more than a means of self-gratification, this is not a reflection of the wider, more creative efforts of activists who utilise the internet for more beneficial means and to support existing efforts in the real world. Generally these campaigns are overlooked by many critics who appear out of touch with the changing nature of social and political engagement as a result of the arrival of the internet into the everyday matters in the lives of citizens. Ultimately, the internet serves as a new platform which can be utilised by those active in political and civic matters in order to better coordinate on a global basis with other activists and as such reinforce existing methods of engagement, whilst simultaneously proving exceptionally effective at raising awareness of campaigns whilst offering the option for further involvement outside of the online world whilst the notion that online activism has undermined more effective traditional means of shaping policy fails to address the fact that many people – particularly within younger generations have lost faith in the ability of existing political institutions to sympathise with their cause and act effectively on their behalf, rather, online advocacy provides a new platform in which participants can work within structures that exist outside of government to achieve their desired outcome. Ultimately, the decline in traditional forms of political engagement amongst these groups does not stand as a reflection of the effects of online participation undermining them in favour of less effective alternatives – which are generally measured by their ability to shape policy at a governmental level, but rather that a general lack of faith in government to address certain issues as a result of the more widely available access to free information that the internet has provided over the last two decades allowing for a more objective vision of the cause and effect structure of government.
Introduction to Methods of Online Political and Civic Engagement: Criticism & Sponsorship
The spread of access to the internet worldwide has been a global phenomenon of unparalleled significance, changing the way in which information is shared and interrogated, as well as changing the manner in which human beings communicate on a foundational level. The rise in online participation has spread into all walks of life, social media providing the grounds for which an issue can go viral within a matter of days – this in particular has helped to shape a new form of political participation: with younger generations growing up in a world where online communication is an everyday facet of life, it is natural that the political arena would enter into the online world. Online campaigning whether for a political party or movement or for a more refined issue has had a major presence in the 21st century and has, for better or worse been a staple of how citizens have chosen to engage in political and civic matters.
Critique of Online Participation: Arguments Against
Online political advocacy, otherwise termed ‘slaktivism’; ‘online activism’ or ‘cyber activism’ has, as some abbreviations suggest, come under hot discussion with regards to its effectiveness as a tool for political engagement and more thoroughly with regard to its potential for undermining traditional forms of involvement, leading to a decrease in activity that will have a negative effect on the overall outcome of a campaign. Whilst initially the arrival of online participation was regarded as a potential to revive the decrease in political engagement (Ayres, 1999) it has more recently come under heavy criticism: Bimber (2001) suggests that online activism does little to mobilise citizens in the real world, with campaigning being limited to the online world where it wields little real influence and effectiveness, similarly Hindman (2009) states that online advocacy acts as a means by which the participant can feel good about themselves for having some involvement in a political or civic issue, and as a result end their involvement having done their ‘good deed for the day’. This has proven to be the most widespread critique of online advocacy throughout the media and among many researchers, as data reveals a growing trend in political apathy amongst younger voters and online advocacy being a majority of young people, it is easy to connect the two and suggest that the arrival of the internet, and particularly social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have bred a generation of lazy and apathetic citizens who will not take the time to foster real engagement or even take the time to properly analyse an issue. This is supported amongst critics with studies relating to the detrimental effects that common internet usage has had on attention span and social engagement; this point has been emphasised by Robert Putnam, who argues that an over exposure to new forms of media – most notably TV and the internet have led to a decrease in social capital, turning many citizens into ‘lonely bowlers’ who no longer interact socially in the real world and as a result are not willing to engage in social political activities, which have traditionally been the most effective means through which to achieve political goals (Putnam, 2000).
This critique has been further emphasised by Morozov, 2009, who suggests that political participation has declined in recent years alongside a rise in online forms of advocacy, the central argument to this critique is that with a majority of participants relying on the internet as an effective means of political participation, and assuming that it is an effective means through which to engage in civic matters, many potential activists result in having a very minimal effect, given the assumption that signing a petition is enough to change and issue, or more notably, that there is no other available means through which to participate in matters of civics, this is combined with the culture of laziness that has come alongside generations familiar with being able to attend to many of their duties without leaving their desk. When options for further engagement are offered, it is likely that the participant will look over them, instead opting for the quickest and most minimalistic means of participation, such as signing an online petition or sending a pre-formatted email to a member of government, and concluding with the assumption that they have a right to feel proud of their involvement. By taking these measures as an alternative to real time engagement in the real world, many citizens who with the potential for involvement are lost as they assume that they have already expressed adequate participation, when often this has little or no consequence to the issue that they were advocating.
Critique of Online Participation: Arguments For
The argument that online participation acts as a deterrent to real time engagement is certainly well founded, there is no doubt that political activism has declined throughout the 21st century, as well as this, party membership is at an all-time low and the amount of involvement in party based politics has declined throughout many communities. Whilst this may be a result of changing methods of political participation, with the internet providing the most popular new alternative to grass roots real time engagement, it can be argued that the internet has opened up a new ground for holding the political arena to account. The massive access to free information that the internet has brought with it have made it significantly easier for events to become public, and to follow the general trends associated with the effectiveness of political participation. Aaron Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Research Centre’s ‘Internet Project’ concludes that whilst discussions generally assume a strong distinction between political engagement online and offline, rather the case suggests that online platforms simply provide an alternative for those already engaged in political advocacy and that social media platforms particularly are simply used as a means through which the individual can share their passion with their associates whilst not necessarily effecting the nature of their participation outside of the online world. This is further backed up by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT centre for civic media and a renowned internet activist, Zuckerman suggests that whilst perceptions of online civic engagement are often criticised as relating to general apathy, this is not the case, rather, younger generations have utilised their ability to access free information and are acutely aware of governments insensitivity to political participation and assume that they will achieve little or no response from elected officials when lobbying for a particular issue. As an alternative to this, young people, and political advocacy more generally has moved away from targeting traditional forms of government and instead chose to pursue their cause outside of government within non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) or through more grassroots activism that is generally overlooked by the media and researchers and may have a strong and effective base in digital media. Certainly the trend of young people moving away from traditional politics is well documented, younger generations intrinsically have a lesser trust in their elected representatives than that expressed by previous generations, and the movement of political and civic advocacy away from this field and into a more widespread arena suggests that online advocacy may not be the reason for a decline in political participation, or more broadly that there has not been a decline in engagement at all. Online participation stands for only a small fraction of the new means by which citizens express and act on their concerns (Dalton, 2006), many citizens now engage in politics through an array of more imaginative methods, many of these methods are seen as more effective than lobbying government because they work at a more grass roots level and are more engaged with the issue that they are trying to address at a local level, thus avoiding the bureaucracy involved in tackling the issue through traditional forms of participation which is generally measured by voting, rather, involvement in political matters has reached a new age of creativity that blurs the boundaries between public and private life (Micheletti and McFarland, 2011).
Alongside criticism of online civic and political engagement there is much primary evidence to suggest that it is in fact an effective means of advocacy. A notable example of this can be seen when looking at charitable organisations and the results that they obtain from launching campaigns on social media platforms, on average when an organisation begins a campaign to spread awareness over a social media network it is accompanied by a stark increase in donations for that particular campaign, and often causes offshoots in order to raise awareness for other campaigns alongside them, for example, during a campaign by child abuse awareness in which users of the social media site ‘Facebook’ were encouraged to change their avatar to a cartoon character, donations to ‘StopChildAbuse’ website increased by four times showing a clear indication that the awareness raised did have a positive and effective impact. Raising awareness is often cited as a key beneficiary to online activism, as it cannot necessarily be portrayed as a negative achievement, however, with regards to political participation and more broadly campaigns with no incentive to donate money, the achievement of raising awareness is not necessarily enough to justify online advocacy as a particularly effective tool for mobilisation. Other more direct means of online participation have been noted as success and are generally not included within the ‘slaktivism’ umbrella, the most notable example of this being politically motivated hacking or ‘hacktivism’ (Jordan and Taylor, 2004). Such acts serve more effectively as a means of protest and statement rather than as effective modes of influencing policy due to the lack of legitimacy surrounding them, however, with particular regard to protest against policy that directly effects the internet itself, this has proven to be an effective means of online activism with strong symbolic connotations that often capture the imagination of the media. Politically motivated hacks can take many forms depending on the desired outcome: some serve as satire with the added effect of raising awareness, for example, hacking into and changing the layout of a political party’s website, whilst others can be more direct and intended to cause more significant damage, for example, hacking into a political website to steal sensitive information such as the bank details, email addresses or home address of members of an organisation. Such attacks can have a detrimental effect on minor extremist parties, an example being when hacktivists published the names, addresses and telephone numbers of a thousands of members of the British National Party (BNP) in 2007 and again in 2009. Such action can be seen as a sharp statement of direct political action, generally condemned by the media and victims as being illegal and extreme in nature, even threatening to the wellbeing of those targeted, however, politically motivated hacking remains an effective method of digital activism.
Critique of Online Participation: Summery
In all, whilst online participation renders strong criticism from a number of observers, I believe that these criticisms not well grounded considering the beneficial effect that digital involvement in civic and political matters can sustain. The idea that online advocacy produces a minor and pointless result is mostly based on awareness campaigns targeted at social networking sites rather than analysing the full range of political engagement that can be found on the internet. It is easy to overlook these forms of participation given that they come in so many forms that would not be readily available to those who were not specifically looking for them, thus as a result I concur that online advocacy can be greatly effective as a separate platform to enhance activates already prevalent among citizens using them and if anything stand to enhance the effectiveness of these campaigns, whilst simultaneously fostering the ability to raise awareness and more effective coordination amongst activists. Given the increasing reach of the internet into the everyday public and private lives of citizens it is natural that the internet will cross over into the political sphere and this reflects the changing nature of how citizens interact with each other socially as a result of the internet, thus rather than replacing existing forms of political engagement with a less effective alternative, online participation has rather created a platform through which these existing means can become more readily available to citizens by the means of increased exposure and coordination, rather than undermining more ‘effective’ participation, they simply reinforce existing methods, whilst those who would stop their engagement after an effortless and inconsequential mode of engagement online would likely have never participated altogether if it were not for the simplicity and availability to do so online.
The potential for online engagement to further political activity has been demonstrated a number of times during protest movements since the beginning of the 21st century, most prominently during the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa regions, whereby citizens utilised social networking platforms to coordinate demonstrations and avoid crackdowns by the police and security services, leading many to dub the protests the ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter Revolutions’ (Mozorov, 2009).
In order to fully demonstrate the potential effectiveness of online political and civic engagement, I will analyse prominent examples of successful online campaigning, supported with research and address the criticisms associated with them, ultimately concluding that these criticisms are more the result of subjective assumptions rather than objective observation of the effects of online political advocacy.
Online Participation in Civic and Political Engagement: The Success Story
Online political participation has achieved notable successes, significantly, these are generally measured alongside their symmetry with events unfolding offline, for example, online political coordination has helped support a number of major protest movements since the onset of the 21st century and is now generally an essential element to any protest, allowing those involved to monitor the presence of the authorities and general coordination of the event, ensuring that participants are aware of the main groups location, as well as providing live details regarding where to receive any form of aid that might be necessary. In this way, demonstrations can be more efficient and avoid hindrance from the authorities, for example, being ‘kettled’ by the police before they can reach their chosen destination. Other widely successful forms of online participation include politically motivated hacking and ‘whistleblowing’, both of which are shrouded in controversy but none the less effective methods of proliferating ones cause. There appears therefore to be a general trend that the most effective online participation in political matters are often centred around direct action rather than the more passive options such as petitioning and mass email campaigns, which tend to produce less of an effect but can none the less be effective assuming they are properly coordinated.
Online Coordination in Protest Movements: Supporting Existing Means
The rise of online participation in political and civic matters alongside the rise in popularity and mobile accessibility of social networking platforms has had significant ramifications, predominantly positive, on the nature of coordination during mass demonstrations around the world. Access to information online has made it substantially easier for activists to stay up to date with political activities, with organisers being able to email users en mass to inform them of when a demonstration will take place and keep them up to date as the event approaches; social networking also plays a part here as users will often publicise the event, changing their ‘avatar’ to a promotion of the particular day of action and calling on their friends and associates to join them – in this way a demonstration can become a viral event in its own right. By utilising online media in this way, traditional forms of political action can be translated into the online world and subsequently reinforce these methods of action, opening them to a wider audience and potential advocates, and making for easier coordination overall (Bennett, et al., 2008).
One of the first and most notable examples of this being employed is the ‘Battle for Seattle’ anti-globalisation demonstrations in Washington, US 1999 in which over 1,300 different organisations took part, totally over 50,000 participants over the course of four days. Online participation played an indispensable role during the protests, in which the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit was disturbed by coordinated roadblocks employed by the protesters in order to block the route of WTO convoys and generally disrupt the proceedings of the event. Activists were online throughout the event both in the field and more generically as a reaction protesting the planned WTO summit swept across the web (de Armond, 2001). As well as this, activists were able to keep up to date with a live account of police coordination which allowed them to avoid being blockaded themselves and prevented from causing further disruption to the event. Such tactics would not have been possible if it were not for constant coordination between activists through the medium of online activity and the ramifications of their actions generated substantial global media attention, which in turn bolstered support for their actions even further across the web and amongst observers around the globe, in particular with regard to protesters efforts to sustain a constant stream of information and video documenting the events across the web, including documentation of police brutality and provided the activists with an alternative means of media outlet as opposed to the traditional media which under the circumstances was more inclined to portray a negative perception of the actions of the activists (Smith, 2001).
Similar results have been seen with the presence of online political participation during more recent waves of protest: during the global wave of demonstration following the global financial crisis in 2008, many movements, including the ‘Occupy Movement’, ‘UK Uncut’ and more generic ‘days of action’ have made effective use of online advocacy as a means of coordinating their actions. Most of these movements began as online sensations that then expanded into tangible events of varying significance. The ‘Occupy Movement’ established in May 2011 provides another example of how online participation can influence a protest movement, after the idea was proposed by a Canadian democracy advocating magazine the idea was emailed out to their followers and subsequently picked up by the online hacktivist organisation ‘Anonymous’ and subsequently reached a substantial online audience, cultimating in widespread global protesting and occupation of public space in various cities and numerous countries on continentally.
Direct Action Online: Hacktivism and the Whistle-blower
Alongside new forms of political involvement and coordination that the internet has brought to citizens one of the most controversial is politically motivated hackings (Jordan and Taylor, 2004). The most prolific and direct political action on the internet is not readily available to the average citizen; alongside an increasing demand for technological skills has come a generation of readily available cyber hackers of varying degrees of skill and the growing proliferation of ‘hacktivism’ – the use of computer and software hacking for politically motivated purposes; leading the U.S. president Barrack Obama to publically declare ‘cyber-terrorism’ as the “biggest threat to the United States” following attempts by hackers to enter the main database of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A). The term ‘hacktivism’ however, generally relates to efforts through which hacking is used as a means to further social causes, often centred around freedom of expression, internet freedoms and sometimes in coordination with other movements motivating hacks on corporate or government websites in which the website is used as a drawing board to pass a message of protest; in these circumstances many observers do not regard hacktivism as a crime, but rather as an online form of free speech. The effectiveness of hacktivism as a means of online political and civic engagement can be measured by the effect that it produces in relation to the desired outcome of the perpetrator. Within this context, hacktivism can be seen as an effective means of advocating free speech and ultimately as a productive mode of online activism due to the fact that if properly executed it tends to complete its intended goal which is to raise awareness of an issue through the means of free expression, and sometimes also acts as a satirical statement meant to mock those it is targeted towards. By its very nature, politically motivated hacking serves as a true example of online activism; it cannot be discarded as ‘slaktivism’ due to high skill set required to pursue it as a means of protest both prior to the action and also during, as a substantial amount of effort may be required to hack into a particular server. Thus, hacktivism presents itself as one of the more highly regarded forms of online political participation amongst activists and observers and whilst the effects that it produces certainly do not go so far as to influence the direction of political policy or even necessarily have much of a prolonged effect at all other than a minor disturbance for a day or so, the action does present itself as a successful and interesting means of free expression in an online world.
Alongside politically motivated hacking, another effective use of online political participation can be with the increasing propensity of ‘whistle-blowers’ – people who report unlawful or otherwise controversial information from an organisation that they work within, to publish their findings over the internet; particularly the website ‘WikiLeaks’ which has helped bring sensitive documents from within the U.S. National Security Agency to the public’s attention, as well as other documents leaked from diplomatic and military cables. This activity is generally – depending on the confidentiality of the information, a highly illegal offense, with recent and highly publicised examples of individuals taking part having to seek exile in foreign embassies or countries to avoid heavy prison sentences. Whistle-blowing is not necessarily synonymous with online political advocacy, however, the web is often used as a means to distribute the information across to a global audience, the website WikiLeaks has since its incarnation released millions of classified documents to the general public via the medium of the internet under the pretext of freedom of information and gained the support of numerous journalistic bodies, working in conjunction with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times newspapers, and harnessing support from the ‘Global Journalists Union’ who stated they were “Welcoming the work of WikiLeaks as part of the new breed of media organisation based on the public’s right to know”. The most well publicised cases being logs on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as diplomatic cables and documents relating to those incarcerated in the overseas U.S. prison Guantanamo Bay. The use of online data sharing websites was also employed prior to the release of the documents, whilst not the clear intention of WikiLeaks staff, the documents had been made available to any online user that was looking for them. The use of the internet in this way provides insight into a major new form of political participation, the ability to hold governments accountable through the free spread of online information provides a means of accountability previously unheard of, making it possible for any citizen to release information about corrupted conduct of their employers, government or otherwise and draw media attention to the case that before the age of the internet would not have had as nearly of an impact – this is particularly true when considering the rise of multi-national corporations whose conduct effects the live of employees worldwide and who’s perhaps limited access to national press alone would not have been credibly disseminated amongst the appropriate audience due to logistical barriers. The use of journalistic whistle-blowing through online publication breaks down these barriers, making the spread of information available to anyone with access to the web, and thus constitutes to a rising new era of transparency that online political and civic advocacy has played an invaluable role in applying.
The use of online participation in civic and political matters is evidently an effective means of gaining genuine results in political engagement when assessed on the basis of a support network for existing methods of action offline, coordination is of significant importance in order to produce an effective result in a demonstration, and the use of the internet within this framework has proven itself to be of paramount use to activists. Reaching beyond the example of the 1999 ‘Battle for Seattle’ demonstrations, the use of blogging and social networking has been cited as a significant aid during the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, with particular regard to Tunisia and Egypt, where the uprisings were dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ by onlookers (Mozorov, 2009). In this manner, online participation ought not necessarily to be viewed as a separate entity to real time participation and a threat to traditional modes of involvement, but rather can be identified as an effective interwoven supporting network for activists and campaigners alike which holds the potential to solidify action rather than undermine it. Online politically motivated participation is shaping new forms of activism that will likely expand into the 21st century, political journalism being at the centre of the stage alongside politically motivated hackings, both of which have proven to be of paramount efficiency with regards to dispensing information for the public good. Ultimately, online political participation will continue to act as a force in political and civic advocacy in new and creative methods that deviate from the traditional means of impact such as voting and lobbying.
Means to No End: Inefficiency and Lack of Results in Online Political Engagement
Much contemporary research into the effects of online political advocacy suggests that traditional means of engagement are being undermined by a tendency of online activism to derail methods of participation such as voting and lobbying, whilst online forms of advocacy such as mass ‘email bombing’ campaigns and the overuse of online petitioning produce ineffective outcomes and are often ignored by policy makers (Bimber, 2001). It is often cited that users online will be more likely to donate money to a cause or sign a petition as an alternative to writing a tangible letter to a member of government, or attending a rally or sit in event. There is also evidence to suggest that obtaining information online relating to a political cause does not increase the likelihood of the individual to further their involvement in that cause and this could be linked to the over exposure of massive amounts of information and the subsequent de-sensitisation to that information that comes as a result.
Undermining Existing Means: How Online Participation Hinders Traditional Forms of Political Advocacy
In order to fully analyse the effects of online political and civic engagement, it is necessary to draw on research and examples relating to the overall effects of being active online in relation to results in real time. Studies analysing the effect of online participation translated into participation outside of the internet generally suggest that being involved in online advocacy does not produce significant results in shaping policy as well as identifying trends that online participation does not often lead to a further propensity to attend demonstrations or meetings or engaging in other forms of political activity such as discussing politics in general (Bimber, 2001; Scheufele and Nisbet, 2002). Critics do however tend to look over the fact that the internet now, whilst serving as a means of information access is also a major form of entertainment for most users; it is therefore feasible to suggest that given online participation often works within existing popular structures, primarily social networking domains, any attempt to integrate political and civic participation within this structure will ultimately seek to capture the imagination and thus attention of users by providing political involvement in a manner synonymous with entertainment media, and thus undermine the ability of involvement to be taken seriously or produce significant results due to a fundamental detachment from genuine advocacy. Campaigns that target social network users are often centred around raising awareness to issues that are already prominent in the public sphere, and usually provide little other benefit than this, as well as risking alienation by a large number of users who see the campaign as nothing but self-gratification with a minimal end result and will consequently avoid involvement with that particular campaign. It therefore becomes necessary for campaigns to strike an effective balance between raising awareness whilst offering real incentives for further engagement that requires more direct action that cannot be expressed sitting behind a desk – something which many campaigns fail to offer.
Statistical evidence suggests that being active online in political affairs produces no improved participation over time (Scheufele and Nisbet, 2002), alongside this, studies have concluded that participation is likely amongst those who have expressed an interest to an issue prior to seeing it online suggesting that online political participation – excluding more direct and specialist online methods such as politically motivated hacking – whilst not necessarily having a detrimental effect on political engagement overall, may well be limited to those who already participate within offline circles and accordingly does not increase the overall effectiveness of involvement.
The argument can expanded into the psychological ramifications that persistent online activity can create in the user, several observers have commented that whilst using the internet can increase connectivity between people on a global scale, over usage can lead to isolationism and a decrease in social willingness and capability, with the user withdrawing from their community and instead finding solace online communities (Nie, 2001; Putman, 2000). As a result of this, users may be less willing to engage in political activity outside of the online community – where in essence real life outcomes are exceedingly more difficult to attain, and subsequently by not following their involvement into the public sphere their involvement is fundamentally undermined and often showered with apathy due to a lack of foreseeable results in their actions. This could in turn lead to wider political apathy and a tendency to avoid political and civic involvement all together and thus in this way online political engagement can undermine traditional forms of engagement and in some cases suspend involvement altogether. Robert Putnam suggests that the increase in different forms of media such as television and the internet have led to many citizens experiencing higher levels of loneliness and depression alongside social isolation and as a result are far less likely to engage in political activities that would involve publically demonstrated, canvasing door to door and generally making a physical presence within their communities. Without the physical communal foundations a political movement is unlikely to succeed as its members will not be as engaged emotionally to make real sacrifices and foster genuine engagement, this is a strong example of how online participation has undermined traditional methods of political advocacy in favour of a host of thoroughly less effective short term alternatives.
Mapping Ineffective Advocacy: Examples Of Where Online Participation Can Be Brought Into Question
The most widespread use of online political and civic advocacy outside of general coordination to supplement offline activity is the prolific use of ‘E-petitioning’, ‘Email Bombing’ campaigns and social network campaigns. These are generally regarded as the most widespread and also the least effective forms of online advocacy, with criticism suggesting that such action proves little or no response from policy makers and are in many respects the most prolific form of ‘slaktivism’ (Shulman, 2009). With regards to mass email bombing campaigns the effect produced is generally minimal as they tend to provide little new information about the subject that they are advocating that the recipient would not already be aware of and do little more than raise an expressed concern and as a result it becomes easy for the recipient to avoid taking them seriously and overlook them altogether (Shulman, 2009). Whilst mass email and petitioning campaigns certainly express a public awareness and concern for a particular issue, this concern would be more well received by policy makers as well as receive more media attention and thus publication if it were expressed through more traditional means of activism such as public demonstration and the tendency for online participants to not engage in this further activity suggests that ease of ‘participation’ online has moved many potentially more engaged activists away from these more traditional and more effective methods, thus undermining the activist community as a whole (Putnam, 2000). Social media targeted campaigns fall under a similar bracket to these minimal forms of participation, though they often provide a basis through which the user ‘shares’ a statement in order to raise awareness whilst imploring their friends to further their involvement by signing an online petition or pre-drafted email and thus ultimately create the illusion that taking the most minimal and ineffective action is adequate, whilst moving on to other forms of ‘slaktivism’ accounts for genuine and effective participation and thus moving users away from potentially more beneficial modes of engagement.
One of the most heavily publicised examples of accused ‘slaktivism’ was the Kony2012 campaign that aimed to bring Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ to justice through raising awareness of the issue to policy makers in an effort to urge an international response. The campaign was the most viral online sensation of its kind in history, and provoked mixed response from observers. Whilst the campaign did encourage participants to follow up their involvement offline and managed to catch the attention of senior politicians and world leaders it can be argued that the case was a perfect example of the ineffective nature of online political advocacy as the campaign failed to stay on the political agenda for long, and ultimately did not achieve its desired goals. Furthermore, the video released by the ‘Invisible Children’ charity and organisers of the event provided a view of the situation that was received with outcry by the Ugandan government due to the perception it gave that the country was in the midst of a civil war. Such misinformation is common amongst online political advocacy, more often than not the issue is being presented from one side only with an insignificant amount of information provided to support the cause which in turn undermines the desired outcome and hinders further participation due to the lack of knowledge the participants possess on the subject and lack of follow up alternatives to online participation given to users.
The effectiveness of online participation in political and civic advocacy proves to be ineffective when looking at minimalistic forms of involvement such as email and petition campaigns and could be argued to produce a draining effect on more effective means of engagement such as public demonstration and community organisation. Due to the effects of isolation that over reliance on the internet can produce and the potential for campaigns to side-track themselves in trying to meet the entertainment demands of online users, political organisers will often undermine their own campaign effectiveness by playing into this bracket in order to maximize the number of participants in their campaign without necessarily giving thought to the potential for those involved to further engage down the line. Even it seems when such avenues are presented, many participants will ignore them and opt for a more simple and consequently less effective alternative. Ultimately, a general lack of willingness amongst those who participate in campaigns such as mass emails and petitions to further their involvement in civic and political matters reflects the broader scope of political apathy that excessive media exposure tends to create and this in turn can undermine more traditional means of participation as potential participants feel that thy have already produced an adequate effect on policy through their limited actions
The effectiveness of online participation in political and civic engagement can be measured by the numerous different methods of participation available to the citizen in the online world. The ‘slaktivist’ approach is evidently a poor substitute for engaging more directly in matters of political and civic significance as it fundamentally undermines the ability for campaigns to be taken seriously whilst steering participants away from more traditional means of involvement. However, it is worth noting that while this is indeed the case amongst those who would limit the scope of their involvement to petitioning and social media campaigns, those who were previously involved in political advocacy demonstrated in research that they used such platforms as alternative means of disseminating information whilst maintaining a high level of involvement in more traditional offline methods of participation, thus it appears that though some online political advocacy has a limited effect, it does not undermine the efforts of those already active and thus cannot be seen to be a diminishing influence on the overall outcome of participation, rather, it could be viewed as an effective means of raising awareness of a cause – the logical first step in any successful campaign process. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that some citizens who engage in online discussion related to political and civic affairs will become more likely to be leading Influentials amongst discussion with their peers in real time, and thus more likely to promote political engagement.
Whereas many observers note that online participation reduces the overall outcome of involvement in political advocacy, I suggest that this is in fact not the case, and that rather, due to the widely open source of free information that the internet allows users to access, the methods in which users participate online have shifted from the somewhat unimaginative traditional forms of activism, and have instead become more diverse and more widespread, making it harder to recognise what constitutes as political activity. It is now significantly more difficult for governments to avoid transparency due to the amount of information and observation on the web and as a result it has become more commonplace for citizens to have a low level of faith in the ability and willingness of their elected officials to act on their behalf, thus causing a rise in general cynicism with regards to the effective outcome of working within the confines of government. Citizens have worked within this structure in recent years to little apparent gain and thus are turning to other non-governmental institutions – a number of which they can only reach via the internet – to direct their desire to alleviate the circumstances of themselves and their fellow citizens. Thus, rather than being the result of a decreased tendency to engage in political activity, online participation has opened new roads of activism that reflect the demands of citizens in the modern era.
The core of this is how online participation relates to and enhances traditional forms of participation; rather than being separate entities, online and offline political advocacy often work within one another to better coordinate their activities and this has proven to be greatly effective when properly employed.
I believe therefore that online participation in political and civic advocacy does not hinder overall political involvement or undermine traditional methods, rather, it enhances traditional methods by allowing them a new platform to utilise. Furthermore, online participation that does not produce a significant outcome does not prevent others already active from participating more effectively, and cannot be seen as a negative influence on political participation more generally.
The online and offline worlds both provide effective platforms through which political and civic transformation can be realised, and as we move further into the 21st century I believe that these two means of social interaction will better coordinate to provide more effective engagement to a more widespread and connected audience.
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