Early criticisms of clicktivism lamenting the end of real activism have poisoned the well to the extent that the image conjured is one of someone sprawled lazily in an armchair scrolling through their mobile phone, liking and sharing, but not making much difference to politics. However, clicktivism is one of the most prevalent forms of contemporary political participation that is quick, easy and can be incredibly powerful when performed individually or as a collective. It is also a means of lowering the barriers to politics that dominant power structures and processes have put in place to restrict what politics is, and where it can be performed.
Political participation has various definitions and contexts of use that concentrate on traditional processes and institutions and on those individuals who already have access and the ability to use them. Developments in technology, particularly the internet, broadened access to political knowledge, created a public space for political discourse and participation outside of traditional political structures. While alternative forms of political participation like blogging and virtual sit-ins are increasingly included in empirical research, clicktivism is still seen as the poorer cousin that doesn’t quite fit in with what we consider to be ‘political’. So why should clicktivism be considered a form of contemporary political participation?
For those with limited access to formal political institutions or who want to take action outside of the political arena, clicktivism is a way of speaking out in a public online space. It enables people to engage in politics in an ad-hoc way, which includes (but is not limited to) signing and sharing an online petition, following election results in real-time or changing a profile picture in support of a cause. The digital platform that clicktivism is performed on determines what action and communication can be performed; this is significant as not all platforms are the same. Although platforms try to replicate what works from each other, the scale of the audience that listens and shares content outside of the platform is what makes a difference.
Twitter has been used by activists during large-scale protests to organise and communicate, such as the Arab Spring in 2011 and Occupy Wall Street in 2012. Rather than perceiving Twitter a tool that activists use when the need arises, it is worth reframing it as a platform that facilitates activism. Clicktivist practices are shaped by Twitter’s specific affordances, such as tweeting, retweeting, @mentioning and using hashtags, enabling activists to disseminate information to raise awareness about a political issue or amplify the voices of others by liking and retweeting, generating interest across the Twittersphere.
Clicktivist practices may appear unremarkable, but they cannot necessarily be demonstrated elsewhere. For example, they can include what David Karpf terms ‘disruptive tactics’ (Karpf 2020), making an action, such as repeatedly @mentioning a mainstream media journalist who has authored a controversial article, hard to ignore. Jane Gilmore is an Australian journalist, writer and feminist activist who users Twitter to draw attention to an example of sexist and misogynistic reporting, generating space for political discussion about the inappropriate language or imagery used in the media. Challenging advertising, television, literature, and media replete with sexist and misogynistic thinking is a well-established method used by feminists in the 1990s that has now moved online.
Gilmore started the Fixed It project in 2015 when she first tweeted a media headline that she had fixed by crossing out sexist and victim-blaming language with red pen. The use of the red pen in her tweets is reminiscent of a teach grading a students’ work, in fact, she suggests a rewritten headline as part of this process. Gilmore directly @mentions the media platform in her tweets, exposing their sexist language and how they frame articles about male violence against women. By drawing attention to sexist and misogynistic reporting using clicktivist practices, she is first saying that this is an issue, and second is advancing an opinion about how it should be resolved. In this sense, it is an engaging in powerful iteration of clicktivism that promotes the need for social and political change.