The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


A new generation of online activists is credited with fuelling a resurgence in contemporary protest, using blogs, Twitter and other social media to mobilise and get their message across. These so-called ‘clicktivists’ boast they are transforming the way protests are organised, taking a leaderless, spontaneous and quick-moving form. Blogger Laurie Penny even claims the web is ‘the greatest democratising force of our times’. Numerous commentators have dubbed the uprisings in Tunisia and across the Middle East ‘Wikileaks revolutions’ because of the way activists used the web to communicate and coordinate protests. And clicktivists aren’t just fomenting protests on the streets: internet group ‘Anonymous’ has taken on the websites of some of the world’s largest companies, and many claim the world’s first ‘cyberwar’ is on the horizon. Nevertheless, this new kind of online activism is also being promoted by governments. The US State Department is actively encouraging digital activists in certain countries with oppressive governments. Even the UK government is encouraging a kind of clickivism, with new forms of e-petitions being proposed to better engage with the views and desires of the public.

Is the internet just another tool in the activists’ toolbox, accelerating normal protests, or has it brought about fundamental changes? If it has, for better or worse? Is it increasing the amount of debate and discussion around protests, or actually making protests more superficial; diminishing what it is to be committed to a cause and estranging campaigners from grassroots concerns? Does the new ‘leaderless’ form of organisation online mark the development of a powerful weapon against the status quo, or instead mean protests are likely to be fleeting, ineffective and chaotic? In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov argues that the internet can just as easily be used by governments to counter protests and for increased surveillance and control. Hosni Mubarak’s faltering administration even shut down the internet in Egypt for a week, suggesting it would be a mistake to make activism too dependent on the web.

Is proclaiming ‘It’s Twitter wot won it’ diminishing the hard work and dedication that goes into meaningful protests? Will future revolutions happen online, or do the clicktivists need to put down their laptops and get out more?

David Babbs
executive director, 38 degrees, an online campaigning community

Phil Booth
coordinator, medConfidential

Paul Mason
broadcaster; author, Financial Meltdown and the End of the Age of Greed; technology editor, BBC’s Newsnight

Martyn Perks
digital business consultant and writer; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Patrick Hayes

director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)