Are we right to sniff at clicktivism? 3 successes in armchair activism

Joshi Gottlieb

Among the words officially added to Oxford Dictionaries earlier this year was ‘clicktivism’ – activism using digital media. The term is often deployed with derision. But so-called armchair activists can have a positive impact, argues Joshi Gottlieb from environmentally conscious search engine Ecosia

‘Clicktivism’ has fallen into disrepute. It has come to stand for the ineffective actions of virtue-signalling armchair revolutionaries, people who aim to alleviate their own conscience rather than help those in need. This reputation is undeserved: online action has not only given rise to a truly global community, it has also made the world a better, more just place – and a greener one, too.

The sceptics are right about one thing: clicktivism makes you feel good about yourself. But if you’re also helping the environment and those who depend on it, then what’s wrong with feeling good? Clicktivism is commonly criticised for making people lazy: that being able to contribute to a good cause with a tap of a finger or a micro-payment makes people less political or reluctant to invest more time, energy or money in something they believe in.

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But what if it is actually the other way around? Empowering users to easily contribute to something bigger than themselves as part of their daily lives can help raise awareness. It makes activism accessible to millions of people, regardless of how much time, energy or money they have. Clicktivism is a very powerful, scalable tool. And leveraging the enthusiasm of a global community could actually allow us to tackle issues that transcend borders, like famine, environmental or political crises. What might seem impossible for an individual to achieve looks a lot less overwhelming once millions of people have joined forces.

It makes activism accessible to millions of people, regardless of how much time, energy or money they have

In celebration of Earth Day, here are three online platforms that are helping people and planet

1. Share The Meal

One in nine people does not have access to enough food to lead a healthy life. This is not because of a lack of food – globally, we produce more than enough to feed everyone. Famines have rather become a matter of distribution. And more and more people are choosing to do their part to make that distribution more equal.

Share The Meal is the world’s first mobile app that allows people to ‘share a meal’ with a child in need at the tap of a phone. Each time, users donate 50 US cents (35p) – the cost of feeding one child for a day. The United Nations World Food Programme provides the meals, and the app lets you track where exactly they are being distributed.

It works. In 2016, for instance, Malawi was affected by severe drought caused by the El Niño weather event, one of the consequences of our warming planet. Share The Meal’s users raised funds to provide school meals for 58,000 children in one of the worst-hit regions in the country.

A child in Cameroon who was helped by Share The Meal. Image: Share The Meal


Petitions on have made a global community come together in exceptional acts of environmental solitary. Among the website’s success stories, a class of fourth graders petitioned Universal Studios to strengthen the environmental message in the Dr. Seuss book-turned-film, The Lorax. “Let the Lorax speak for the trees,” they urged. It worked. The studio updated the film’s website to include the environmental message that the children had requested.

Abby Goldberg, 13, made it her school project to bring about a local ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in her home town of Grayslake, Illinois. After gathering 150,000 signatures for her petition ‘don’t let big plastic bully me’, the then-state governor personally called to thank her for her help in bringing the issue to light. He decided to veto legislation that would have prevented cities and towns in Illinois from banning plastic bags and imposing fees on their use.

Clicktivism is a very powerful, scalable tool

Important steps have been taken to protect the Peel river watershed, one of Canada’s wildest, most rugged and untouched wildernesses, thanks in part to a petition. And palm oil plantations, that cause widespread devastation to plant and animal life, have been outlawed in Tripa, the area with the highest density orangutan populations in Indonesia, following another.

The Peel river, Canada. Image:Dr. John Cloud/NOAA Central Library

3. Ecosia

The internet can be a fabulous place full of astonishing information, you just have to find it. Most people would agree that, as long as the world wide web exists, people will use search engines.

What many people don’t know is how much money search engines make with online advertising. Every time a user clicks on an ad on the search result page, their search engine is paid by the advertiser. And these clicks add up. Industry giants like Google make around $30 (£23.45) per year and user. What if there was an alternative to Google that invested this money into something as important as planting trees?

In fact, there is. In terms of quality of results and general performance Ecosia – where I work – functions like any other search engine. It’s easy to install in all browsers and is available on mobile. The difference is this: 80 per cent of our profits from advertising are used to finance tree-planting programs all over the world. To date, Ecosia’s users have helped finance close to 8m trees. Ecosia’s goal is to finance 1bn trees by 2020 – more than an eighth of the Global Earth Day Network’s goal of planting 7.8bn in the same timeframe.

Why trees, you may ask? Because they help nourish vulnerable communities, create jobs, and grow healthy and useful fruits and seeds. Trees restore landscapes, restart water cycles, produce oxygen and neutralise CO2, and provide a habitat for a multitude of (including many endangered) species. Trees, in short, are pretty awesome.

Ecosia has so far planted almost 8m trees

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  • Fortis

    Can’t get enough of Ecosia.

    Change one of your browser’s search engine to them and download the app. Watching their tree counter tick over is eco-therapy.

  • Forest Shaman

    Problem with clicktivism is people think they are doing enough. But these people don’t communicate in the real world about this they become closit activist creating the illusion that people don’t want change. As people don’t talk about these issues face to face then it makes it something done in secret and kills activisivims slowly!

  • Kim Arnette

    Do you have any stats on this?

    A lot of us have jobs in which we can’t discuss political issues, families that rip each other apart at the mere mention of a controversial topic, and/or we
    can’t make it to protests, visits to a congressperson’s office, and so on. Personally, I can’t stand actual politicking and campaigning and will maintain that I don’t have to wallow in that mud to be a perfectly responsible and active citizen. I keep myself well informed. In a cyber-letter, I can carefully articulate my points; when I call someone’s office, all they want to know is my name, voting district, and basically “yay” or “nay.” I’m not ashamed to say that I sign petitions online and make donations, also sometimes online, but also vote with my wallet and walk my talk, taking numerous concrete actions to support the issues I care about. I’m not big on Facebook and I absolutely don’t tweet, but my friends, church members, fellow professionals, and a couple hundred people in my neighborhood share their ideas online; there’s absolutely nothing secret about it.

  • Forest Shaman

    Stats what for? you cant have stats for an opinion. We need to use our own judgement and not always rely on stats to pave our way. It has become apparent through my reading that a lot of the time these stats are altered or just not published when the don’t show the answered they want. My favorite stat is 98% of stats are made up :)

    Yes I sign the odd petition online, I am not saying it’s wrong or everyone who does it is. My point is this is not enough to get change of course it makes a difference, but we need to completely change our attitude. I too working in a place where I though my opinion would be frowned upon but once you strike up that conversation with colleagues you will be surprised what happens. Obvious you have to tread carefully but most people think the same I find. As for family they’ll come round if they really love you. I have this experience a few weeks of grief but they came round, it’s my life and nobody can tell me what I must think.

    We need conversation and unity in order to bring about REAL change and you can’t get that through clicktivism alone :)

  • Kim Arnette

    Your enthusiasm and optimism are encouraging, but also a bit naive. Some people simply can’t discuss those things at work or with their families–that’s not an opinion and it’s not skepticism; it’s REALITY. Political discussion can damage some people’s careers and can even be openly declared off-limits by employers, and an ugly family fight won’t change the minds of those who don’t want to them to be changed. It can actually drive people farther apart. Long term. Your family’s lovely experience would make a nice Hallmark movie.

    Yes, face-to-face activism can be powerful, but the bottom line is that what people think doesn’t matter one single bit if the numbers–votes, petitions, and dollars–aren’t there. If you want real change, to make a real difference, you do everything you can–and in the 21rst century, a smart activist will use all the tools at their disposal, and take all the allies they can get.

  • Forest Shaman

    I am not naive I am all too aware of the problems speaking out can cause. I not talking about sitting in the middle of your office bleating out you political stance. You pick your opportunity’s and who you speak too, like in a break with one or two colleague you get on with. Of course I would not discuss all my view but its about building up the conversation find a topic you relate you and slow build as it allows. I understand some employees don’t allow this type of conversation but that is restrictive and unethical on their part. I have worked for places like that and told them my views on it resulting in good and bad outcomes.

    I am not saying clicktivism is a bad thing Kim I am simply expressing my view that it sometimes detracts from the face to face activism occurring as much a it could as much of the digital social media does. An example I have had conversations with people who are clicktivists and they are surprised I have the same views when I have brought up the topic, this in turn has inspired a conversation within a small group all discovering we had similar views. This opened up a platform to highlight some topics I passionately believe in. Now in some cases it goes the opposite way and I’ve been called crazy, nutter, delusional, to name a few but I don’t care as long as I can be myself. This is not possible for many i completely understand as it was for me ten or so years ago but my experience changed this.

    As for my family it was not all sweet as roses the relationship it still tainted with some but hey they know who I am and I would rather that. I have said ” I respect you views why can’t you respect mine” (put simply) and yes it’s not all roses but we don’t talk about subjects that cause friction. And if it weren’t for our blood ties we would not speak as some past friendships have gone. And even on some things t

    I just believe it better to be yourself and would much rather someone despise me for my views than think I was someone else. It’s a matter of choice! Yes using all the tools it the only way to change. But change will not come about through signing petitions as I also used too and I am not trying to detract for their value.

    Real change comes when an alternative is created, and I believe this can only happen through interaction and like minded people coming to gather to create this alternative.

    Keep it up :)

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