An Armchair Activist or an Army of Activists?

In the last post, the important point was made that we should be realistic when discussing the effectiveness of new media: not getting caught up in the hyperbole of its capacity but also acknowledging the advances and improvements it has brought to campaigns. For example, this blog has shown how journalists are using social networking platforms to fight the current censorship, repression and upheaval in Ethiopia. Whereas, it has also been acknowledged that forms of old media are still very much relevant for pushing social change.

Taking this discussion onwards, I am going to look at one of the main issues offered as an inherent weakness of new media activism; namely clicktivism (Morozov 2013).


This refers to individuals becoming superficially interested in a cause online but failing to transfer this interest into material action. Signing online petitions, buying a MPH wristband for example or other light touch involvement can feel like activism but this form of lifestyle agency or ‘dispositional irony’ as Chouliarki (2015) would deem it, minimizes the effective engagement with an issue and does not help achieve the goals. The protests in Belarus through 2006 against Lukashenko showed the disparity between a vocal online active movement and the failure to translate this into effective action. More generally it is attested that clicktivism inflates a social movement with greater numbers, online presence and information but this activism does not travel offline to foster change.

There are many other contemporary examples that would fall under this category where a social movement has had a lot of followers and apparent support yet ultimately failed to achieve their goals . But there are aspects of low-key, minimal engagement that can be argued as productive. Barbera, Wang, Bonneau, Jost, Nagler, Tucker et al(2015) state that peripheral participants in social activism are critical in increasing the reach of the protest message and generating online content. The aggregate sum contribution by peripheral members it is argued, is of comparable magnitude to that of the minority core members at the heart of the movement.

They argue that the power lies in their numbers: quantity not quality that matters. Critical mass theories suggest there is a critical number, a breaking point when the number of participants reaches this stage the movement moves to a position of self-sustaining activity. By swelling, promoting and disseminating a movement’s agenda, the periphery can add to this process.

The data presented in the case studies Barbera et al (2015) looked at suggest that there is fertile ground for future analyses on core-periphery relationships through online activism.

Moreover, looking beyond contemporary online activism, Clay Shirky stresses the importance of online participation adding to the public sphere. As more people get access to information and are able to relay and discuss the information, there will be greater capacity for engagement leading to social change. To mark the efficacy of online activism only at present misses the opportunity that it holds looking forward. Parmelee and Birchard’s 2012 work on the ‘Twitter Revolution’ would state that there is already a case to be made for the power of ICTs affecting the current political sphere. It is clear that despite the obvious problems with light-touch activism, we cannot be truly dismissive of the potential that peripheral online activism holds moving forward


Armchair activism is brought up through this TED talk on environmental activism. The issue of TED talks is itself is intriguing. For an interesting analysis on whether they are indeed an effective platform for promoting change, check out Denskus, T., Esser, D. 2015


  1. Linda

    Thanks for sharing the articles discussing the potential positive aspects of peripheral participation in social activism. Or perhaps as the more pessimistic person would refer to it, clicktivism. I too think that one should not overlook the numbers as word of mouth and popularity can indeed help drive up the interest in a cause. I’m yet to read the articles to see what they have to say about the matter. When reading Morozov I really struggled to agree with much of what was said. The view on the role of new media was so pessimistic it gave little room to any kind of compromise or acknowledgement to its potential use as tools to bring about social change /Linda

    1. Stuart Grant

      Yes, Linda you make a good point. A lot of the literature looks unfavorably on low-intensity activism. There seems to be an implication, such as you mentioned with Morozov, that the periphery of an online social movement is a large yet hollow space ,devoid of meaningful contribution. The reason I cited Barbera, Wang, Bonneau, Jost, Nagler, Tucker et al. (2015) is that they conceptualize this space in a different way. I would definitely recommend reading it to get a new angle on the positives that so called ‘clicktivism’ can bring to a movement.

  2. TW

    This is a useful piece Stuart. It has always seemed obvious to me that a successful social movement would make room for different levels of engagement – there has to be a way for a large mass to offer agreement, as well as for more dedicated activists to push the cause forward. There’s no doubt that sometimes being able to quickly sign a petition allows people to feel they have done something, that they have responded to that moral impulse, without actually achieving much for the cause, but it also gives a base for encouraging further action.

    1. Alona Polanitzer

      Hi Stuart, I agree with the others before me and also think your post is useful. I have written about the tensions of activism/slacktivism myself in a blogpost, but when I read your post, I thought that that are two important issues that may actually cause these tensions particularly: (1) the use of the word activism when refereed to a person who clicks on a share button/e-petition etc. (perhaps it is time to find a new noun for those) (2) regarding Barbera et al (2015): the core-periphery dynamics is indeed significant, as you’ve mentioned, perhaps even more significant than is discussed in academic research. However, I think that the slacktivism debate tends to come up not in relation to campaigns that make use of this dynamics, but rather to campaigns that make use of the mass periphery only, like the Save Darfur “Cause” on Facebook that is discussed by Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich (2014) in which they showed that it only a very small groupof people (“core members”) who donated money for the cause and recruited other members to the cause (in comparison to the majority of the people—“periphery members”—who merely “shared their discontent” of the situation). This case sheds more light on the fact that “online campaigns” are those to attract more of the slacktivist practice and, therefore, the minute campaigns use both online and offline, quantitative and qualitative effects through the core-periphery dynamics, they will only gain out of it, and, thus, use new media techniques in more positive/significant ways. Thanks again for the post /Alona

  3. Angelica

    In this way armchair activism is a bit like a 30 second TV advert. It is more information spreading than life changing. When we like something on Facebook or forward an article we read the information spreads. If enough people read that Starbucks cups are not recyclable despite their design there is a chance that people start bringing their reusable cups for their coffees.

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