Why clicktivism now makes us switch off

President Obama is better than most politicians at exploiting social media, but even he can fall victim to mocking memes.

With the online premiere of The Road We’ve Travelled, a 17-minute Tom Hanks-narrated documentary, the Obama campaign signalled its intention to stay ahead of the social-media game in the 2012 race for the White House. Launched on a new YouTube platform that allows viewers to share content, make donations and sign petitions on a single page, the hope is that the doc will go viral. But as enthusiasm for ‘clicktivism’ turns to cynicism about ‘slacktivism’, and as the time gap between the emergence of online phenomena and their satirical memes narrows, politicians throw themselves into social media at their peril.

A case in point: it didn’t take long for parodies of Obama’s Hollywood-style doc to emerge online. The launch of the trailer and the appearance of the film’s Oscar-winning director, Davis Guggenheim, on Piers Morgan Tonight inspired the GOP campaign to create a satirical poster which pictured Obama and his vice-president, Joe Biden, laughing, golfing and playing with water guns. ‘The only bad thing they found about their time in office was that it was just too good’, reads the mock tagline. Guggenheim, the man behind An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, had told Morgan that the only negative thing about Obama was that there were too many positives to fit into the film.

The Road We’ve Travelled comes across as a nostalgia trip as it tries to recapture the hope and excitement that surrounded Obama when he took office in 2008. Similarly, The Story of Us, a four-and-a-half-minute video released last month, celebrated the president’s path to the White House and his achievements. The video shows a web-user clicking through websites showing memorable moments, greatest hits-style. Here’s Obama’s announcement of his candidacy, his dance on Ellen DeGeneres’s talkshow, his squashing of a fly in the middle of an interview… It’s not hard to imagine mock versions of either of the two videos with send-ups of Obama’s image as the cool prez and a run-through of his many political disasters – from his mid-term election losses to his handling of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Of course, contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination would be foolish to ignore social media. It is a relatively cheap and effective way of disseminating messages and generating talking points. And besides, a majority of the online population uses the web for information about the election. A recent Pew poll showed that nearly three-quarters of social-networking site users say their friends post content related to politics from time to time. That amounts to 40 per cent of the entire adult population.

The internet was, and still is, regarded as a crucial tool for winning over young people, and Obama remains ahead of the game. On Twitter and Facebook, the president’s following far surpasses that of the Republican candidates. Obama has over 13million Twitter followers. Newt Gingrich has under 1.5million, Mitt Romney has about 377,000, Rick Santorum has nearly 167,000 and Ron Paul has nearly 142,000. On Facebook, 25.5million users ‘like’ Obama. Romney has about 1.5million ‘likes’, Ron Paul has just over 909,000, Gingrich has 296,000, and Santorum has nearly 178,000.

Now it seems like Obama is hoping to recapture and boost the clicktivist spirit of the 2008 race, when his media-savvy team trailblazed methods for online fundraising, opinion-forming and citizen engagement. But the social-media landscape has also changed since then. Arguably, the power of social media has grown stronger since Obama won the 2008 presidential race. The number of Facebook users has increased from 100million to 800million. An average of 13 hours of content was uploaded on to YouTube every minute in 2008; today it averages 48 hours’ worth per minute. In the past four years, Twitter’s staff base has grown from eight to 400. Websites and apps like FourSquare, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest have taken off.

But the political social-media landscape has changed in other ways, too. The enthusiasm for clicktivism has turned sour. The term describes a use of social media that allows campaigners to rally support and measure their success by tracking the number of clicks on their pages, petitions or web videos. Now there is a lot more talk about ‘slacktivism’, a pejorative term describing lazy engagement that makes people feel good but does little to change the world. It’s not a new concept, but in the past couple of weeks many more people will have become familiar with slacktivism, as it has been repeatedly applied to the Kony2012 campaign. The Kony2012 campaign may have hogged the internet with extraordinary speed, but almost immediately it faced a fierce backlash online.

This kind of back-to-back cheering and decrying is not an unusual pattern in the age of the internet meme. But for political campaigns that are increasingly relying on social media, the souring of clicktivism necessitates new methods for containing negative spin, especially when there is little way of knowing where it will come from.

In the case of Kony2012, many have blasted it for being shallow, simplistic and nonchalant about accuracy – and it is. At the same time, the hipster dad behind the campaign has seemingly cherrypicked tried-and-tested methods from charities and political campaigns that have sung the praises of online activism and launched online petitions, Facebook badges and sleek videos in efforts to ‘raise awareness’, to ‘get out the vote’ and the like. Much of the criticism of Kony2012 is coming from this very camp. In other words, even social-media fetishists are realising that the online activism they’ve promoted tends to be reductive, shallow and narcissistic.

This curious backlash is unlikely to spell the end of black-and-white messages and feelgood political campaigning. Yet the message to take away from all this is that as more effort is put into condensing complex reality into 140-character tweets and giving it the Hollywood treatment, so the gap between the online world and real-life gets bigger. In this sense, Obama’s social-media pioneering – and his competitors’ efforts to catch up – looks less and less in touch with the real world.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

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