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In her speech on Internet freedom on February 15, Hillary Clinton referred to a debate about whether the Internet is “a force for liberation or repression.” To be brutally reductive, you might call that debate the Morozov Vs. Shirky debate. The media often reduces the debate further to two competing narratives: “Facebook Will Set Us Free” Vs. “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” (to use Jay Rosen’s term.)

One of the reasons the narrative swings back and forth, apart from the fickleness of media (myself included), is that there just isn't enough empirical evidence on the subject of digital activism. So both sides of the fence end up bolstering their arguments with sometimes-rickety anecdotal evidence.

Those of us interested in the spread of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights should be looking for smart ways to assist activists in countering dictators’ manipulation of the web. Where I disagree with Rosen slightly is that he seems to think that the dueling narratives are somehow damaging: “a dumb way of conducting a debate.” While this discourse might be annoying to him, I would agree with Nancy Scola at TechPresident that it's a discourse that has actually been productive. What was a debate between academics and digital activist types has become mainstream -- and that can only be a good thing, especially in raising awareness among the people responsible for implementing the policy.

So in the name of not getting stuck in the rut of dueling narratives, it's good to see a little more empirical evidence on one hotly debated subject: slacktivism, the pejorative name given to some forms of online activism. Slacktivism, so the critique goes, is clicking “like” on a Facebook Cause, changing the color of your avatar, or signing and forwarding an e-petition. Critics say this form of activism is less effective than real-world activism (whatever that means these days) and more about expressing our preferences to our peers and our own narcissism. Instead of joining a pressure group or chaining ourselves to the railings, we just tie on a Twibbon and suck down that latte. This is the stuff that gets Malcolm Gladwell going, the type of weak-tie activism that wouldn’t even get a seat at a lunch-counter demo.

A new paper, "Political activities on the Internet : Slacktivism or political participation by other means?" sheds some light on the phenomenon, beyond the usual sneering.

The paper is mostly a literature review, examining whether Internet campaigns “are effective in affecting real-life political decisions, and whether Internet activism substitutes traditional forms of offline participation." The author, Henrik Serup Christensen, comes to the conclusion that while it’s hard to gauge the effect of Internet campaigns on real-life decisions, "there is no evidence of the substitution thesis" -- i.e. taking part in an online campaign won’t necessarily stop you going out into the streets to protest. In fact, he concludes that the Internet has a positive effect on offline mobilization. Take that Gladwell!

Interestingly, it seems the original use of “slacktivism” was not pejorative, but first used in 1995 to describe “slacker activism,” which referred to “bottom up activities by young people to affect society on a small personal scale used.” These days, the “slack” is taken as a value-judgment on the efficacy of the activism. The examples Christensen uses are: “wearing political messages in various forms on your body or vehicle, joining Facebook groups, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.”

There’s no question that the Internet has made it easier to organize mass campaigns, by creating an abundance of distribution channels and by lowering the transaction costs of organizing. It has enabled more people than ever before to get their message out to a much wider audience. But reaching people is one thing, affecting change is another. On this point, the evidence is still hazy and still a little over-reliant on anecdotes and the testimony of activists (who of course like to rave about how beneficial their campaigns are.)

Christensen looks at the question of the quality of online participation:

In this sense, the availability of electronic forms of “activism” may even lead to deterioration in the quality of participation, since people who would otherwise get involved through traditional means may instead opt for digital opportunities, believing that these activities are a sufficient replacement. Even if it is granted that online activities are a form of political participation, they may still be less efficacious ways for citizens to achieve desired political goals.

For instance, what is more effective? A senator’s mailbox being clogged up by thousands of near-identical protest emails or an eloquent, passionate individual writing a letter in order to meet with her senator? Perhaps there is still something to be said for a more human touch, just in the same way that it means more to tell a joke in person, rather than merely forwarding it.

But as Christensen points out: “Many traditional acts of political participation do not necessarily require great efforts on behalf of the participants, nor are they necessarily efficient ways to further political preferences.” Where people like Gladwell went wrong with his critique of digital activism is that he didn’t compare like with like -- for instance by comparing the lunch-counter protests with some kid turning his avatar green. It would be more appropriate to compare the kid with the avatar with the teenager 20 years ago who might have worn the button and signed the petition. (Both political acts are low-effort, low-sacrifice, and probably pretty ineffective.) There was certainly ineffective activism -- more about indicating preferences than achieving change -- way before the Internet came along. I’m not sure many regimes have been brought down by street theater or effigy burning either.

Christensen concludes that it’s still impossible to assess the efficacy of online campaigns. The majority of evidence seems to come from sites like, which obviously have a vested interest in parroting their successes and keeping quiet about their failures. But in terms of assessing efficacy, I would argue that’s probably pretty true with offline campaigns as well. When we’re talking about relative intangibles such as “raising awareness” or “creating a public space,” it’s a long game and pretty difficult to gauge impact.

On the question of whether online activism has a detrimental effect on offline activism, Christensen cites some more conclusive evidence. He references a number of studies that all show that using the Internet for campaigns does not have a negative effect on real-life participation. Other studies go further and show how effective the Internet is at mobilizing the young into “off-line forms of political participation.” (Egypt is a good recent example, of course.)

Where I disagree with Gladwell and others in their critique of slacktivism, is that they create a false dichotomy of online and offline. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Protesters in Egypt showed a masterful use of both online and offline tools (they used Facebook, but they also handed out leaflets in working-class districts lacking the Internet.) We’ll see more of that mix in future campaigns, although the online-offline mix will vary from country to country, dependent on Internet penetration, target audience, and counter-measures by the people the activists are trying to oppose. When we move further into an always-on world, that distinction between online and offline will increasingly disintegrate. Eventually the word “online” will lose its meaning and Internet activism will be just what it should be: activism.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen tweets @ One problem. Shirky doesn't say “Facebook Will Set Us Free." Why doesn't this matter to you? Please explain in your post.

I didn't mean to give the impression that Shirky said that or held such simplified views, but was rather laying out the crude poles of the debate. I realise Shirky's position is more nuanced than that. I have tweaked the language to clarify what I meant.

This was the original graph: "To be brutally reductive, you might call that debate the Morozov Vs. Shirky debate, encompassing two competing narratives: “Facebook Will Set Us Free” Vs. “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” (to use Jay Rosen’s term.)"

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