16 May 2014

A defence of ‘clicktivism’: how online campaigns make change

In a week which saw a backlash against “hashtag activism” over the #Bringbackourgirls campaign, Change.org’s UK director defends online campaigning – two years on from the website’s launch.

Photo, clockwise from top left: Caroline Criado Perez and the Bank of England governor, Lee Lawrence delivering a petition to Downing Street, #Bringbackourgirls and a petition for the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

“This is just clicktivism! Pointless clicktivism!” goes the cry as millions around the world call on world leaders to take action to save over 200 girls kidnapped in Nigeria, writes Brie Rogers Lowery, director of Change.org UK.

In this case clicktivism via a hashtag started in Nigeria has launched a worldwide movement around girls’ education, pushed leaders to act and brought a largely ignored issue onto our front pages and TV screens.

Two years ago when we launched change.org in the UK with a user base of just 250,000 people dismissed the site as “clicktivism”. Many said that people coming together online wouldn’t make a difference to anything, that politicians and companies just wouldn’t listen.

This is the best time in history to be campaigner – the tools are everywhere, and free

And then Change.org users and their “clicktivism” actually started winning. Clicktivists like Stacy Stafford kept her severely disabled son in school despite the council cutting his funding; Caroline Criado Perez fought the Bank of England to keep a woman on our banknotes; Kester Brewin forced Friends Life to pay out on his best friend’s life insurance policy for his widow and children.

Now 5m people in the UK use Change.org to start, join and win campaigns on issues they care about – joining a global user base of almost 70m making real change every day. This is an incredible shift in how the web can enhance democracy not delivered by a centralised organising committee but by individual citizens campaigning on their terms and in their way – telling their stories and building their own movements.

Fahma Mohamed and FGM

Fahma Mohamed is a great example. Seventeen-years-old and from Bristol, Fahma had been working with a local organisation on the issue female genital mutilation (FGM), which some of her classmates had endured. She felt strongly that teachers weren’t talking about it enough in schools, so she started a petition calling on Education Secretary Michael Gove to write to all schools urging teachers to talk to students about it. No-one thought he would agree – but he did ask her and her friends into a meeting at the department for education.

One evening in February, Fahma and five of her friends marched into his offices and an hour later he had agreed to their demands. A week later he was in Fahma’s school in Bristol taking advice from teenagers on how he should best tell teachers about the horrors of FGM.

Fahma’s story is particularly powerful as the countdown to next year’s election begins. It is guaranteed to be the most digital election ever, but also likely to be the one with the lowest engagement from young people. In fact this month, a survey from British Future showed that 60 per cent of first time voters aren’t planning on voting.

‘I think we should all keep on clicking’

It is too easy to put this disengagement with the “Punch and Judy” politics of Westminster down to an apathetic generation of young people. Change.org users – generally from a younger demographic – certainly aren’t apathetic, they engage with political issues every day, on an issue by issue basis.

Politicians see the value too. Our users tend to find that it is better to target institutions and companies and give politicians the space to endorse and support campaigns. When Caroline Criado Perez took on the Bank of England over women on banknotes, MPs of all parties supported her, enhancing the campaign and pushing the Bank to act.

This is the best time in history to be campaigner – the tools are everywhere, and free. You can build movements that used to take months and years in hours and days. In just two years, five million British citizens have taken action to support someone’s petition – and over a third of those have experienced what it’s like to secure genuine change.

If that’s clicktivism, then I think we should all keep on clicking.

Change.org UK’s five favourite victories

Fahma Mohamed takes on Michael Gove over FGM: Seventeen-year-old Fahma Mohamed was horrified when she learnt about FGM as part of her work with Integrate an organisation working on the issue in Bristol. She started a petition calling on the government to do more to push FGM in schools. 235,000 people signed, Education Secretary Michael Gove agreed to meet and she emerged from the meeting with his agreement to write to all headteachers.

Stacy Stafford saves her son’s schooling: When Stacy got a letter from Glasgow Council saying funding for her disabled son Aaron’s schooling was to be cut, she was devastated. As a last resort she started a petition and 7,500 signed, local TV came to interview her and she marched into a meeting with council officials. They backed down, and Aaron stayed in school.

Kester Brewin fights for his friend’s widow and kids: Nic Hughes died of cancer locked in battle with Friends Life over his life insurance policy. His friend Kester took up the battle, securing the support of nearly 70,000 and a host of celebrities. Friends Life were forced to pay out.

Caroline Criado Perez V BoE: When the Bank of England announced that Elizabeth Fry was no longer on the £5 note, Caroline thought it said a lot about how society viewed the role of women in history. With 35,000 supporters she delivered her petition to Threadneedle Street: a few weeks later the Bank U-turned and said Jane Austen would be next on the next £10 note. Not only that, but the Bank is reviewing its selection process in the future.

Lee Lawrence’s 30 year fight for justice: In 1985 the shooting of Cherry Groce by police sparked the Brixton riots. Her son Lee Lawrence was 11 at the time and looked on as his mum was shot. 30 years later, they were denied legal aid for the inquest into his mum’s death. Over 100,000 people signed Lee’s petition, his MP stepped in and the Lord Chancellor was forced to grant legal aid.