UNICEF: Likes Don’t Save Lives

A biting new video from UNICEF Sweden takes a poke at “clicktivism,” the Internet Age’s no fuss, no muss activism that can be done from the comfort of your couch. With just a few keystrokes and a mouse click, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people every day feel like they’re making a difference for whatever cause they support.

As UNICEF’s video mockingly reminds us, clicks don’t save lives –money does. It’s an effective, to the point video that should hit a chord with some of UNICEF’s supporters who faithfully sign petitions but who haven’t yet taken the next step to become a donor.

The video also stirs the ongoing debate about clicktivism or slacktivism, as it’s sometimes called. The loudest critics of clicktivism are often folks who are deeply invested in “old school” organizing, getting boots on the ground at real world marches and protests. From a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune article on activism in the digital age:

But amid the myriad postings, there’s a swirling debate about whether such electronic chatter spurs real-world change or encourages nothing more than a surrogate for activism. It even has a name: “clicktivism.”

“For a lot of people, the mere act of posting relieves that need or feeling for them to be involved. They feel like they did their part,” said Heather LaMarre, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who studies strategic communication. “There’s sort of a social expectation that somebody else is going to show up for the rally.”

More damning was a beautiful article Adbusters Editor Micah White wrote for The Guardian back in the summer 2010 that exorciates digital activism. White says the problem with online organizers is that they wholly embrace marketing as a way to spark social change, with an emphasis on metrics and A/B testing rather than the “power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds.”

Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. 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.

Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.

White was the co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which along with the Tea Party was America’s greatest boots-on-the ground mobilization of activists since the 1970s. Ironically, the OWS movement owes its success as much to Internet memes and “likes” as it does to the thousands of people who marched or camped out.

I passed the OWS camp in DC every week.  There was no questioning the commitment of the campers to the OWS cause but where is the power of a few dozen people in tents? What really gave heft to the protests in DC, NYC and elsewhere was that those campers were proxies for hundreds of thousands of others who were liking Facebook pages, signing petitions, tweeting and sharing memes.

I’m not going to argue White’s well-made points. Clicktivism unto itself won’t solve the world’s problems. He correctly put his finger on the corrupting influence of metrics and marketing.

All online organizers should read White’s column and take a long introspective look into the mirror he holds up to our craft. The power of ideas do matter.

But mobilizing the unwashed Internet masses is an essential part of any advocacy campaign, even if the vast majority of those activists will never ever march in a real protest or write a check. The numbers do help persuade policy makers, or at the very least it makes them consider the potential consequences of going against the will of the people.

The more inconvenient truth, however, is that courting online activists is as much about grooming potential donors as it is about sparking social change or legislative reform. Converting a small percentage of those petition signers or Facebook fans into occasional donors and perhaps a few of those into regular donors is undeniably a goal of all professional online organizers. There’s no need to apologize for that. UNICEF is right. Money saves lives — it also helps pay the salaries of those nonprofit staffers who are in the trenches acting as proxies for everyone who clicks a petition or makes a donation.

UNICEF makes a great point but don’t think for a minute that it doesn’t want you to click “like” on its video or share it on your Facebook page.