The Limits of “Clicktivism”

by Bruce Hartford

Many of our readers are probably aware of the pros and cons of online organizing but we think this author raises some very important questions about accountability by those groups sending out petitions to millions of citizens and raising money from them. The article first appeared on the SNCC list and it and several responses to it are posted on the Civil Rights Movement Vets website.  – Editors


“Clicktivism” refers to supporting online petitions and responding to donation requests by clicking on an email link or a website button. Last week I received a flood of emails from a dozen different internet-activist organizations engaged in asking me to donate money and/or “click here” to support or oppose this or that. It’s not even noon year and so far today I’ve received half a dozen.

I’ve been responding as a “Clicktivist” for quite some time, and it seems reasonable now to ask “How effective is it?” To folks who are obviously trying to do good that may seem like an intrusive question, but for decades people have questioned the efficacy of protests and though I have long supported nonviolent direct action I accept such queries as both legitimate and reasonable. So it seems fair now to ask, “How effective is clicktivism?”

I don’t know how effective clicktivism is and one reason for my ignorance is that none of the clicktivist groups I regularly interact with do much reporting back to their members and supporters. For example, I’ve been on Move-On’s list since 1998 and I don’t recall ever seeing from them (or from any of the other groups) reports that answered questions like:

How many staff work for them?
What to they actually do day-to-day other than send out email requests?
Who makes decisions and how are they chosen & held accountable?
Where is an annual financial report of income & expenses?

How many signatures were gathered on the petitions I signed?
Who were those petitions delivered to, and how?
What was the reaction of the officials who received the petitions?

Another question I’d like to ask is how does our side’s progressive clicktivism compare to the clicktivism of our adversaries? When we deliver X-number of signatures in favor of reproductive rights or opposing a pipeline how many do the Tea Party or Koch-fronts deliver on the opposite side?

I might as well also ask where are the reports tallying how many people voted for which choice when we filled-in those “What Are Your Priorities?” online surveys? A cynic might wonder if lack of such result-reports indicate that they were simply fund-raising gimmicks which had no influence whatsoever on organizational decision-making by whomever it is that makes such decisions.

As someone who comes out of the Civil Rights and Labor Movement traditions I believe that reporting back to your activists and members is an essential requirement for building and maintaining long-term trust and commitment.

And while I support the clicktivism model and will continue to be a clicktivist myself, it seems to me that there are some inherent weaknesses in this form of social activism we should think about.

We all know Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And she’s right so long as we add that those small groups eventually had to win majority political support among the many who don’t and won’t take active part themselves. But I doubt that Mead would have counted folk who simply click on a link as members of those “small groups of thoughtful committed citizens who succeed in changing the world.”

It seems to me that clicktivism is essentially a “political-services” model. A “you pay us and we do politics for you” concept.

Once there was a Labor Movement in this country where masses of workers took action on their own behalf, but today most unions are service-agencies where member dues are used to pay labor officials who perform contract, grievance, legislative lobbying, and so on for the members rather than the members being organized and mobilized to take action on their own behalf. The same is true for nonprofits that provide services to the poor and downtrodden rather than organizing them to fight for themselves.

Yes, I know clicktivism mobilizes masses of people to click on buttons adding their names to petitions, and some may even be mobilized to call elected government officials. But that’s a far cry from the kind of active mass participation that built the Labor Movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights and student movements of the 1960s, the Womens Movement of the 1970s, and the Environmental Movement of the 1980s.

Those movements were built and sustained by local/chapter/project models in which people met face-to-face in living rooms, churches, and union halls where they learned basic political and organizing skills for themselves, did their own legislative lobbying, organized and participated in protests and strikes, and directly talked to and debated with their neighbors, coworkers, and classmates all on their own. That’s what empowered those movements and spread them across the nation into every city, town, and hamlet.

Yes, building and sustaining union locals, organizing projects, discussion groups, and student chapters is hard. Very hard. It’s not only hard, it’s messy and time-consuming and difficult to centrally control. It’s so much easier to collect donations and dues online and hire a small staff to do the work on behalf of the donors than to it is organize, train, & lead people to do it for themselves. It’s easier, but it’s not sufficient.

To be clear, I’m not saying that clicktivism is bad or harmful or that I won’t do it anymore — quite the contrary. What I am saying is that it isn’t enough because there’s no way in hell that clicktivism alone is going to defeat Trumpism. What we need more of now is old-fashioned organization and movement building that involves people at the grass-roots level in real face-to-face political activity


About the author:

From 1963-1967 Bruce Hartford was a Civil Rights Movement activist/organizer in California, Alabama, and Mississippi. He was a founding member and national officer of the National Writers Union (UAW Local-1981) and today is webspinner of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website (

Leave a Reply