Credit: Rallying Cry, Apples and Snakes/Jerry Kiesewetter. All rights reserved.
On the 14 April 2014 the far-right Islamist group Boko Haram abducted 276 girls in the northern Nigerian village of Chibok; the nation was distraught. It was an event – similar to the assault on the town of Baga in that same year – which incensed the country and soon became a viral social media campaign. As Nigerians took to the streets, marched and rallied the government to do something about the atrocity, the online world called to #BringBackOurGirls.
This hashtag proliferated and was used over one million times in less than three weeks. Celebrities, actors, rappers and the first lady of the United States all tweeted it, adding to the social media outcry. Three months later the World Cup started, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign subsided and was soon forgotten. Four years on, 100 of those girls are still missing and the kidnappings continue; in February 2018 another 150 girls were taken from their schools.
Any collective sentiment of solidarity has power, but how much change did the #bringbackourgirls campaign actually elicit? It is difficult to truly know, but ultimately many of the girls are still missing. From the comfort of our armchairs and coffee shops we are able to tweet, click, add a hashtag and join an online campaign on causes like this, but does it really do anything?
The website clicktivist.org emphasises the positives, suggesting that “the use of digital media for facilitating social change and activism can include a whole a range of activities” including organising protests, signing petitions, crowdfunding and circumventing news blackouts. In reality, however, clicktivism is messier than this.
One of the fundamental problems is that it often marks the end of a person’s involvement with a cause instead of the beginning. Clicktivism may connect individuals and draw attention to an issue for a brief amount of time, but it often fails to sustain that engagement fully in the struggle. It’s impulsive – a response to something encountered online - and instantly gratifying rather than a considered political act like voting or marching.
It’s also noncommittal, meaning that in isolation it doesn’t require any further action – you can click ‘like’ and then you’re done. Such actions can be easily replicated and that’s the point: clicktivism is about getting as many people as possible to repeat the same action over and over again, and in that sense it’s an effective viral marketing tool. But does quantity also mean quality? Clicks don’t always translate into changes beyond the Internet.
Importantly, clicktivism is about a particular political device - a person or a decision - rather than a particular ideology. That could be why people sometimes dismiss it as meaningless, because it’s a small, non-risky, one-off act instead of a sustained engagement in a larger movement.
Of course there are some success stories. The ALS ‘ice bucket challenge’ has reportedly raised over $100 million for the fight against progressive neurodegenerative disease, and has led to a 60 percent increase in participation in traditional fundraising activities like sponsored walks.
I’ve indulged in activities like this myself by using hashtags or signing a change.org petition, and it feels good, right? It makes us feel like we are doing something. In a world where people are angry and apathetic in equal measure, clicktivism could provide an answer. While fleeting, it’s democratic in the sense that it makes activism accessible to millions of people, regardless of how much time, energy or money they may have. Decades of research have shown that people are more willing to engage in activism that is easier and less costly emotionally, physically and financially.
So what’s the alternative?
I think theatre and poetry have an answer. Theatre, at its best, is a dialogue. It’s democratic, shapeshifting and powerful. Poetry uncovers and dissects the crunchy, oblique and often difficult situations that are happening in our world and brings people into a deeper emotional connection with both problems and solutions. That’s the rationale behind a new show I’m directing at the Battersea Arts Centre next week called “Rallying Cry.”
The production takes its name, and in part
its inspiration, from the poet and activist Audre Lorde. As she once wrote,
“Without community there is no liberation. In our rallying and marching we
rediscovered community in one another.” At a time when the world is revolting,
people are angry and a storm is coming, this is a protest and a call to arms.
In “Rallying Cry” the UK’s leading spoken word artists declare their rebel yell as Battersea Arts Centre is plunged into a rabble-rousing ruckus. This is not a moment to ‘keep calm and carry on.’
I set out to create a show that deconstructed why the world has become so binary - both extremely angry and in large part apathetic; paralysed by not knowing what to do when nothing seems to affect real change anymore.
Poetry is the ideal device to tell these stories, but poetry and politics are uncomfortable bedfellows. Poetry, like political language, is rarely uttered without intention, without wanting to create a real effect. So I decided to work with a selection of the best and most exciting poets in the UK to reflect on where we are in the world and how to change it.
The show is also immersive, surrounding the audience in order to involve them completely in the performance rather than being passive bystanders. I want them to be active, and to experience how the work makes them feel since emotions are such powerful motivators of social action.
Theatre may not become a viral sensation, but I hope it will leave a deep mark on its audience, a lasting impression of how the world could be and what the alternatives are to the current status quo. Stories will always be more complex and affecting than a hashtag, but to be effective mobilisers the audience for them has to show up and get involved.
The journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell once said that “Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” Clicktivism and its even lazier cousin Slacktivism provide more of these tools, and they aren't going away; nor should they. They can draw attention to causes, build a mass following, and involve large numbers of people in showing their solidarity and support. However, they should not be seen or used in isolation in the ways we change things. They are tools in a much more expansive activist’s toolkit and should live in the larger ecology of social action.
For me, no amount of clicking or hash-tagging can ever substitute for showing up. Social media can help activists to spread their message and connect with others, but the success of social movements hinges on people who get offline and take real, physical risks.
Change is painful, and it takes energy and effort. Changing policies, opinions and attitudes take a momentous amount of time and commitment. Twitter and Facebook may not be the tools to do this on their own, but coupled with stories of change that disrupt, inspire and give us hope they can help to tip the balance. Welcome to Rallying Cry. I hope you’ll join us.