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Our Insights 15 Feb 2011

Armchair Activism

By Frances Buckingham

Recently I have signed up in support of a number of different campaigns and used social media to spread the word on the issues in focus. However, after the warm glow of participating in a movement has subsided I am left questioning whether my armchair activism has had any meaningful impact.

The last few months have seen campaigns to prevent the sell-off of the UK’s forests; to stop the waste created by industrial fishing; to stop the proposed closure of libraries in my local London borough; to support the Lighter Later campaign; and the list does not stop here. I have tweeted, retweeted, ‘liked’ on facebook , signed petitions, emailed MPs and generally felt good about supporting what seems, for a number of reasons, to be a resurgence of campaigning efforts recently.

But does such armchair activism ‘work’? The sustainability agenda is dependent on external drivers, and social media campaigns can certainly raise awareness and exert societal pressure to transform people, businesses and markets. As a result of Hugh’s Fish Fight, sales of sustainable fish soared in the UK. Whether this effect will endure or not, at the very least it has disrupted the market and brought into focus whether retailers’ fish sourcing policies are in fact sustainable. Social media can play a significant role in such movements: Getting 500,000 supporters to sign up to a campaign ten years ago required a whole lot more time and effort than it does today.

But beyond participating in a movement what difference have I really made? I may have tweeted about the issue but was I really just an armchair activist? Have I changed my own behaviour, have I influenced others or have I assessed what these campaigns mean for my day-to-day work?

I signed up to the 10:10 campaign at the start of 2010 but had I reduced my greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by the end of the year? Probably not. To be honest it was business as usual in our household, which is probably on the lower impact end of the scale anyway. I still tend to feel self-conscious about asking a retailer or restaurant where their fish is sourced from. In terms of influencing others I have not engaged with my ‘stakeholders’ to see whether my tweets, facebook posts or word of mouth recommendations have resulted in any action or support. And beyond having more data on sustainable fishing to throw at retailers (search for coley on Ocado’s website and the search returns litre bottles of Coca-Cola) I have not really assessed if, and how, these campaigns are disrupting the markets for business.

Influence means that you can affect the behaviour of others, that people watch what you do, listen to you, and act on your advice. Hugh’s Fish Fight demonstrates how an influential food writer and broadcaster can leverage his influence through a variety of different channels to mobilise the population to support a cause and change their behaviour. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in The New Yorker late last year where he observed that “the internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency”, but he goes on to warn “that weak ties seldom link to high-risk activism.”

By joining and tweeting about a campaign, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that others are listening or that we are having any influence beyond the act of being one more supporter of the cause. As Gladwell says, the Internet ”makes is easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

While I truly believe that all efforts – yes, even armchair activism – take us a little further on the journey, it is important to recognise that it is one thing to support a cause, but a different thing entirely to change societal behaviour in pursuit of that cause.

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