What is in a click?

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Every year I ask my new crop of students the same thing: ‘Is clicking “Like” on Facebook political participation’? This is inevitably unpacked by way of a series of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe sometimes’.  People tend to have a gut feeling when it comes to new forms of engagement. They think about their own use of these avenues, and in doing so, conclude about their worth relative to more established forms of engagement such as protest and voting. And to this end, the question of whether clicktivist-style actions, such as retweeting and clicking “Like”, are political participation or not is approached by way of an internally rationalised and constructed context of participatory worth. The value and classification of such actions are not related to some normative declaration, or self-evident role in society. Rather, the way in which people frame new forms of action is usually dependant on their own experience with such actions.

With this said, slightly changing the way in which the question is asked produces a very different result- one of uncertainty. If you ask, ‘Is clicking “Like” on Facebook a legitimate form of political participation?’, then the response is likely to be one of ambivalence. Firstly, because the question becomes all that more complex, and secondly, because the notion of legitimacy is one that most everyday people don’t regularly reflect upon. However, what is legitimacy and how does it differ from related concepts such as: classification, worth, efficiency, and efficacy?

I recently wrote an article for the Australian Journal of Political Science on this very topic, because in asking students these questions, I realised that I did not have an adequate answer myself.

What is Clicktivism?

Clicktivism, sometimes referred to as “slacktivism”, is an emergent form of political participation which has recently grown in popularity. Rotman et al. (2011) provides the most concise conceptualisation in the literature, seeing clicktivism as a low-risk, low-cost activity via social media, whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity. Similarly, Lee and Hsieh (2013) look to define clicktivism through relevant examples, such as: clicking ‘like’ on Facebook to show support for an interest group; signing online petitions; forwarding letters or videos; or changing a profile picture.

In an earlier piece, I defined clicktivism by way of seven key features. Ultimately, however, clicktivism can loosely be defined as: an impulsive and non-committal online political response, which is easily replicated and requires no specialised knowledge. The significance of this heuristic is that it looks to establish clicktivism as a political action, separate from the campaigns that it supports.

Legitimacy

Clicktivism is, if anything, popular. Indeed, due to its ease of replication and non-specialised boundaries for use, it has emerged as one of, if not the, most popular forms of political participation in the world. To this end, it would seem simple enough to apply a Weberian approach to legitimacy to clicktivism. That is, the idea that ‘legitimacy derives from people’s belief in legitimacy’ (Beetham 2013, p. 8). In this sense, legitimacy is product of perception, and perception is intrinsic to popular use. Therefore, clicktivism is a legitimate form of engagement because people employ it widely. Yet, there are several issues with this assertion. A prevailing criticism of Weber’s contribution is that the beliefs that people hold are the product of cumulative influence. If belief is legitimacy, and people believe in the legitimacy of power, then is this not more a case of perception management and marketing? Is legitimacy therefore not the will of the powerful?

To Beetham, a well-known legitimacy scholar, such a reductionist approach leaves the social scientist with no adequate means of explaining why people acknowledge the legitimacy of power at one time or place or another. Thus, Beetham calls for legitimacy to be understood as multidimensional in character. He explores the notion of legitimacy in power by way of three distinct elements, or levels. Here, power can be said to be legitimate to the extent that it:

  1. Conforms to established rules
  2. The rules can be justified by reference to beliefs shared by both dominant and subordinate, and
  3. There is evidence of consent by the subordinate to a particular power relation.

While Beetham’s model does not speak directly to the legitimacy of independent actions, nor of political participation more narrowly, it still proves a useful typological companion in such an unpacking. To understand clicktivism as political participation, and thus, its interaction with contemporary notions of legitimacy, we must frame it in such a way as to better understand its purpose and pursuit.

An Initial Heuristic

With Beetham’s heuristic, we see that the basis of his approach to legitimacy is grounded in three key concepts: rules; beliefs; and actions. In framing clicktivism as the pursuit of an exercise of power, we establish it in terms which allow us to dismantle Beetham’s own approach, and rebuild it in a manner which better suits the contemporary digital act. This is not to create our own normative framework for the exploration of legitimacy in new forms of engagement. Rather, these three elements are inspired by the basis of Beetham’s own approach, and in turn, prove a significant frame for the discussion of the legitimacy of clicktivism. To this end, we can explore clicktivism and legitimacy in three key ways:

  1. Rules; the adherence of the action to tradition avenues
    1. Clicktivism lacks legitimacy within the confines of conforming to rules; that is, adherence to traditional avenues. Clicktivism, as a form of political participation, rarely engages the political arena, and even then, does so in a way removed from established modes of representation. Clicktivism allows people to be political, and engage politically, within those digital structures that they most frequent.
  2. Belief; the acceptance of the action, and belief in that action
    1. People use clicktivism as a means of political participation; yet question its capacity to incite genuine change. Yet, its negative perception as an act capable of achieving political change should not impact the legitimacy of the clicktivist act. It can be argued that popularity indicates a higher-level of pre-conscious acceptance, and negative views are indicative of a post-reflexive position influenced by measures of success grounded in the rules of power as inscribed in traditional avenues of engagement. Here, the prevailing popularity of clicktivism highlights a level of popular belief, and in this way, legitimacy.
  • Action; the intentionality of the action, and the context in which it is situated.
    1. Clicktivism, as the pursuit of an exercise of power, is an action that has the capacity to imbue a political component as an actioned response to an established Object. This is an inherent feature of the action. Yet, politicality cannot be reliably established, as it is precedent on both the intention of the actor, and the context in which it is situated. In this way, actions which are not political can emerge as clicktivism after the fact, regardless of their initial meaning. Similarly, acts of clicktivism may lose such classification due to the fluidity of context, and the unreliability of observable intentionality.

This framework should not be interpreted as a normative exploration of legitimacy in clicktivism. Rather, the levels discussed here prove significant frames in the discussion and unpacking of contemporary forms of engagement. Here, the purpose is not to establish clicktivism as either legitimate or illegitimate, but rather to develop a series of lenses by which to explore the theoretical boundaries of these new, and emerging actions. In this way, we are better able to understand not only the structure of the ‘game’ and the motivations of the ‘players’ but, more importantly, the actions that they make in and of themselves.

 

This blog has been adapted from Halupka, Max. 2017. “The legitimisation of clicktivism”. Australian Journal of Political Science. 53(1): 130-141. https://doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2017.1416586. Read it for free for the next month here.

 

Dr Max Halupka is a pretty cool guy. He writes his thoughts down for a living. He thinks a bunch about politics and technology. He likes to think he’s getting pretty good at it. He works as a Lecturer for the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra.