TOPIC GUIDE: Clicktivism

"Social media is rejuvenating political protest"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2012

AUTHOR: Patrick Hayes

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Over the past five years the rapid rise of social media - the use of internet and mobile technology to engage in an interactive exchange with others [Ref: Wikipedia] - has been hailed as being as much of a revolutionary force as the birth of the printing press in 1440 [Ref: Huffington Post]. In September 2011, Twitter announced it had over 100 million active worldwide users [Ref: Guardian] and growth rates even exceeding Facebook, which some predict may hit the one billion user mark before too long [Ref: Daily Mail]. The rise of social media has coincided with a resurgence of protests worldwide, from unprecedented upheavals in the Arab World to the ‘Indignados’ protests in Madrid and Athens and the rise of the Occupy movement. Unsurprisingly, some have attempted to draw a correlation between the two – suggesting that the use of social media by protesters is driving a new era of political protest [Ref: Guardian]. The uprising in Egypt was widely described as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ [Ref: Atlantic] and a new generation of social media activists, dubbed ‘Clicktivists’, are seen to be increasingly influential in the UK [Ref: Evening Standard]. Is social media just another means to communicate – a modern and efficient form of post and telephone - or something different in kind? That social media is being heavily used by protesters to communicate is without question, but the extent to which it is genuinely rejuvenating political protest has been challenged. Is it not, some argue, other factors such as responses to the recession and political repression that remain the key driving force? [Ref: Telegraph]. Others say, however, that social media is allowing what may previously have remained personal gripes to be transformed by allowing much greater opportunities for individuals to find others to share their concerns, which has already led to major changes in government policy [Ref: Huffington Post]. Critics would argue, however, that political protest is not just a numbers game; simply clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook campaign page hardly constitutes meaningful political engagement [Ref: Guardian]. Mechanisms such as Twitter, which allows just 140 characters per tweet, could also potentially hinder serious, substantial political debate. Far from rejuvenating political protest, are social media promoting a hollowed out form of political engagement?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A social revolution or just the latest technology?
The sight of protesters tweeting from their smart phones on demonstrations is now commonplace, with social media used to play a role in avoiding the police ‘kettling’ technique in the 2010 student protests [Ref: ZDNet]. The Occupy movement notoriously began as a lone ‘hashtag’ on Twitter and, within weeks, became a reality with individuals camping out near the financial hub, which in turn sparked copycat protests around the world [Ref: Reuters]. The Arab Spring saw Facebook and Twitter heavily used by a new generation of young protesters to organise [Ref: Guardian]. As author Heather Brooke puts it, ‘Whereas before, they might have felt alone in having those concerns, instead, through social networking, they could band together and find out that they all share these concerns before starting to organise’ [Ref: Wired]. Surely, some argue, this shows the extent to which social media is a powerful driving force of today’s political protests? Not so fast, say others, people have already found ways of communicating ideas – through leaflets, word of mouth, and traditional media – social media may be a catalyst, but it is not different in kind. The impact of Twitter on the Arab Spring may instead reflect the self-aggrandising nature of the ‘Twittering Class’ in the West, who like to think they played an important role [Ref: spiked]. Moreover, when Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak shut down the entire internet in Egypt, the Arab Spring wasn’t put on ice – rather people found alternatives which, according to some reports, even made the protests more effective [Ref: Atlantic].

Radical force or antisocial network?
The UK’s so-called ‘Blackberry riots’ of summer 2011 offered a reminder for some of the distinctions between social and political unrest [Ref: Guardian]. Even if social media is a useful tool in organising protests, does it risk downplaying the politics in the process? Micah White from Adbusters – which began the Occupy movement – claims ‘Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing’ [Ref: Guardian].  Some claim social media are weakening social and political bonds [Ref: New Yorker] and ‘flattening people out’ [Ref: NY Review of Books]. Others praise the democratising nature of the internet, which erodes old hierarchies and prevents authoritarian leaders from emerging [Ref: Wired] enabling a more popular engagement in politics than ever. Far from weakening social bonds, says BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason, social media is ‘expanding the power of the individual’ in unprecedented ways. Blogger Laurie Penny praises the web for ‘slowly effecting a shift in the way in which politics is understood across the world, and in the relationship between governments and citizens’ [Ref: Prospect]. Critics disagree, arguing social media may be useful in telling people to do things, but less so in ‘figuring out what those friends should do’ [Ref: New York Times].  In celebrating Clicktivism, ‘the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change’ is often ignored [Ref: Guardian] with people thinking the ‘freedoms previous generations had to fight for are now to be won with a click of a mouse’ [Ref: Standpoint]: a passive form of political action dubbed ‘Slacktivism’ [Ref: New Statesman].

A forum for debate or intolerant arena?
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has referred to Twitter as the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’, giving an open platform for campaigners to express their views, anonymously should they so choose to [Ref: WSJ]. US foreign secretary Hilary Clinton has praised the power of the internet to ‘put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights’ [Ref: Foreign Policy]. But others say that the transparency of social media could actually lead to a clamping down on, rather than rejuvenation of, protest. Protest groups are heavily monitored by police, which led to the pre-emptive arrests of nearly 200 EDL members on Armistice Day in 2011 [Ref: Daily Mail]. In other countries, authorities monitor social media to identify and arrest political dissidents in ‘Cyber crackdowns’ [Ref: France 24]. Furthermore, there is the question of whether the fast interactivity of social networks is conducive to the kind of open political debate associated with protest movements of the past. While blogger Sunny Hundal praises the ‘people power’ of Twitter campaigns against ‘offensive’ comments by the likes of journalist Jan Moir [Ref: Guardian], others are concerned that ‘Twitter can be a remarkably conformist, elitist and intolerant arena’ [Ref: Telegraph] which hardly fosters an atmosphere of free speech or thought. While the anonymity afforded by social media may make it easier to organise protest and express controversial opinions freely, there is also the risk that the same lack of accountability makes the engagement with ideas and politics consequently less serious. As influential author Evegeny Morozov questions, ‘What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticisation and thus dedemocratisation?’ [Ref: New York Times]


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


The revolution will be digitised

Katie Scott Wired 18 August 2011

The Twitter mob rules, OK?

Sunny Hundal Guardian 19 January 2010

The Twitter Revolution: more than just a slogan

Clay Shirky Prospect 6 January 2010

Three cheers for the internet

Laurie Penny Prospect 16 December 2009


Facebook doesn’t cause riots – or revolutions

Brendan O’Neill Telegraph 25 August 2011

Friends in Revolution

Tina Rosenberg New York Times 12 July 2011

Small Change, Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker 4 October 2010

Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism

Micah White Guardian 12 August 2010

The revolution will not be tweeted

Andrew Gilligan Spectator 17 April 2010


A Twitter Revolution for Journalists

Joel Simon Huffington Post 14 February 2012

Social media and the Wall Street protests

Economist 11 October 2011

The Clicktivists - a new breed of protesters

Ben Bryant Evening Standard 19 January 2011

Is the internet a tool of tyranny?

Nick Cohen Standpoint December 2009


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


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