Clicktivism, also known as armchair activism, is the lazy variant of digital activism. With a mere “like” from a not-so-perilous region, you can share your support for a good cause from the privacy of a safe bubble. Clicktivism is support in numbers; it can be engaged in half-heartedly and can be suspected of being done as much for online show as it is for reasons of good intentions.

Since the early days of the Internet, when free speech, knowledge-sharing and free space for thought and debate were the expected benefits of the new digital space, digital activism has been something of a failed ideology. The Web was so rapidly colonised by companies for business opportunities, it seemed that the Internet needed time for activists to reclaim it as a safe space. Online activism has long been a niche space on the Web. The Arab Spring’s resurgence of social-media-driven activism drove masses to Tahrir Square and gave activists free space for sharing their personal broadcasts: rare examples of on-point digital activism amid a mainly opportunistic digital economy.

The sharing of support through clicktivism has positive and negative purposes. To start with the bad news: noticing and sharing injustices in the world in the form of news items to your friends and contacts is of course not that helpful. It is hardly the digital equivalent of a carefully planned political petition aimed at raising support. Models in which people support online causes by donating money to NGOs via clicktivist sharing on social media have not yet been successful. On the plus side, visibility is of course a numbers game, and there are plenty of examples in which the viral spread of a call for action through social media content has garnered a global online audience for an ideological project and led to global press coverage via traditional channels.

Perhaps the best clicktivism model is the challenge. It peaked in 2014 with the Ice Bucket Challenge meme, and its success lay in a clever “business model” that incorporated two very Internetty things: (1) visibility of support combined with peer pressure to participate and (2) fun. You got to participate in an online game (throw a bucket of ice water on yourself to declare your support for ALS research, film it on a webcam, upload it to social media channels); you got to do so in an original way and therefore one-up whoever else was doing it; you got to publicly dare friends and family (and even celebrities) to follow your lead and join in the fun. Participating made you look good: if you did it well, it made you look like a fun person; if you played your dare/challenge cards right, it could make you look like a glamorous and well-connected person. Enter the shame: participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge is a lot of work, and however elaborately or simply you want to do it, it always takes a degree of production value and a change of clothes. Doing all the work and not actually donating to the actual cause is, at that point, almost impossible. And it worked: the founders of the project raised millions for their cause.

Clicktivism is still very much present on social media but has died down a little. Even clicktivists can become snobbish, and the umpteenth regurgitation of the challenge model was finally just not new and shiny enough any more. It was just another hype. The best clicktivists today are likely sharing coverage of outrageous political situations from proper sources, showing that they are opost hype and knowledgeable about more respectable sources.

Above: The Ice Bucket Challenge.
Clicktivism peaked with the Ice Bucket Challenge. It not only had the right concept and timing for the social media environment of the day, it was a celebrity fest in which the common folk got to rub shoulders with the likes of Donatella Versace, Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake. The challenge meme successfully combined star power with individual presentation as social media platforms seemed to be hitting a peak, with YouTube and Facebook as its main channels. The Ice Bucket Challenge raised an impressive $80 million from online enthusiasts for ALS research.

Above: Black Lives Matter and Twitter activism.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a rare example of an ongoing digital protest that has kept its integrity amidst the clicktivism wave of the past years through sheer force of will. A response to police violence against African-American citizens, many of them only teenagers, it is a well-coordinated movement that is combining online and offline visibility with a tremendous understanding of what constitutes digital activism and how the life span of an online protest is a part of a bigger, longer fight and ideological strategy.
Of course, a main reason for the ongoing force of Black Lives Matter is that the injustice the movement is responding to is far from solved and is clearly still escalating. A second reason is that many well-organised protests online that could be considered part of, or at least aligned with, the movement, while hardly opportunities for fun participation challenges, still spread very well virally and were crowd-created/sourced as chapters by/per hashtag. The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Twitter protest is essentially clicktivism, sharing all the markers we now recognise from the Ice Bucket Challenge, but it is also part of a family of similar short-lived Twitter actions, like #Trayvoning, for instance. In the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown action, people posted pictures of themselves that could be used to maliciously misrepresent them in the media (showing themselves clad in urban attire, hanging out with friends, presenting visual rhetoric that could easily be used to paint them in a bad, “ghetto” light) next to images representing their biggest successes in life (graduation gowns, formal military portraits, business attire) to openly ask how their death by police brutality would be painted in the press. In the #Trayvoning action, people posted pictures of themselves mimicking published photos of the body of Trayvon Martin, a victim of police brutality, who was found holding a bottle of soda and a bag of Skittles (without a weapon in sight). Cleverly playing with images as a direct response to media coverage and framing images to colour a story or misrepresent a situation is far from the Ice Bucket fun, of course. But it’s spot on.
The Black Lives Matter movement has used reinterpretations of iconic images in other ways – the slogan “Hands up don’t shoot”, the wearing of black hoodies in protest marches, and various types of online visual communication – in a strategy that is a direct indictment of media coverage of violent inequality. Their message simultaneously confronts the aggressors and the messengers that misrepresent the situation.