Correcting a Misguided Critique of Clicktivism

Note: This post by David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, was originally published on shouting loudly.

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Micah White just came out with another “assault on clicktivism” article. This one is even more absurd than the last. (My previous response to White is here.)

I’ve never met Micah White. But he strikes me as the worst type of leftwing activist. He’s like one of those fifth-year-senior college socialists who *still* think the workers of the world are going to unite any day now. They choose tactics because they’re exhilarating and fun. They don’t listen to criticisms from allies. And then they announce that the lack of revolutionary fervor among fellow progressives is the true problem.

In this case, his theory of why the workers of the world haven’t thrown off their shackles is, literally, “it’s MoveOn’s fault!”

White is a senior editor at Adbusters. He has become convinced that digital activism, as practiced by MoveOn, PCCC, GetUp, DFA, Avaaz, and pretty much every other prominent netroots advocacy organization is “degrading” leftwing activism.

(…Yeah, I know what you’re think right now. “Wait, Adbusters is still being published?!?”)

In his latest missive, White complains that clicktivism has been “deployed by a dying American empire … to cripple the revolutionary potential of a whole generation.”

His problem with MoveOn isn’t that e-petition are too easy. His problem is that MoveOn makes use of “marketing culture.” Netroots groups like MoveOn use A/B testing to gather passive democratic feedback from the membership. Your decision to open a message and take an action tells a netroots organization something about the will of the membership. It also informs decisions about what actions to request and what message frames to employ.

Call me a sellout if you’d like, but that kinda sounds like a good thing. During my time on the Sierra Club Board, we often wished for that sort of membership feedback (hell, any sort of membership feedback). We designed processes – online and offline – for gathering such feedback. But they could be tremendously slow and sometimes costly. A/B testing isn’t perfect, but I just can’t muster a lot of anger at organizations that develop new tools for listening to their membership.

White also rails against MoveOn’s use of backchannel e-mail lists, writing:

“It is worth noting that past MoveOn employees communicate via a private email list and thereby accomplish one of their greatest deceits of all: using their organizations as mouthpieces to celebrate each other publicly without disclosing their back-room personal ties.”


No. It is not “worth noting” that past MoveOn employees have a listserv. That’s neither surprising nor controversial. Past Sierra Club Board members also have a listserv. So do a bunch of friends I made at a conference one time. There’s even a listserv for everyone who participated in a high school training I ran for the Sierra Student Coalition in 1998. Listservs are simple and easy. Networked professionals use listservs to maintain connections, particularly once formal work-ties have dissolved. EVERYONE knows that. It’s the opposite of “worth noting.” It’s common knowledge, and not the least bit deceitful.

The deepest pathology in White’s article comes in its second paragraph, where he writes, “If#OCCUPYWALLSTREET fails, it will be because we’ve blindly adopted “best practices” put forth by wealthy Californian techies turned reformist campaigners.”

#occupywallstreet is an action that Adbusters is planning for the fall. They’ve decided that 20,000 activists will descend on Wall Street and stay there until “their demand for real democracy is met.” (Seriously, what kind of theory-of-change is that? Sign this guy up for a New Organizing Institute training. The most basic one available.) White is already announcing, 6 weeks beforehand, that when this utterly fails, it’ll be the fault of MoveOn, Avaaz, Color of Change, and the PCCC.

Here’s the thing: just yesterday, 15,000 Rebuild the Dream supporters attended district meetings at congressional offices. The PCCC and DFA meanwhile are working round-the-clock on the Wisconsin recall elections. They’ve developed excellent campaign ads, fielded 3 dozen organizers, and have nationwide volunteers making GOTV calls through That’s real organizing. It’s powerful, and time-consuming, and substantive, and not-at-all-just-signing-epetitions. The “clicktivism” that White bemoans is being used to mobilize serious, sustained collective action, both online and offline.

Micah White should stop blaming the netroots for his organization’s irrelevance. His organization is irrelevant because it is apparently run by people who lack a single ounce of critical self-reflection. Frankly, I don’t think White has the organizing chops to get 20,000 to engage in mass civil disobedience. That’s tough work, and he appears to be more interested in writing flowery prose, bitching about actual organizing. That always bugged me when I was a full-time organizer. It bugs me even more now.

There are plenty of thoughtful critiques to be made of the political netroots. But this just isn’t one of them.

2 thoughts on “Correcting a Misguided Critique of Clicktivism

  1. Thanks for this!

    I quite like reading Adbusters because there are quite a few gems hidden within its pages. Even if I don’t entirely agree with every article, it’s fun to critically read about topics that interest me. I decided it would probably be a good move to subscribe to the Adbusters RSS feeds.

    This was a mistake. There’s just so much oversimplified and naive commentary on digital activism that I can read before becoming overly frustrated. And it seems the Adbusters blog is disproportionately (though understandable) written by Micha whose views I increasingly just cannot understand, let alone support.

    So, I’m glad others are openly critiquing it still. I just don’t have the energy anymore.

    Great summary of the #occupywallstreet campaign. I wonder how likely they thought it was to succeed, or if it was set up to fail to make a point about . . . the futility of digital space to organise successful campaigns? I really don’t know. Perhaps I’m trying too hard to understand the meaning here.

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