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In late August last year, Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones told listeners: “[Prime Minister Julia Gillard] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating. Women are destroying the joint – Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly”.

It was the spark that ignited the highest-profile case in Australia of what is referred to (often pejoratively) as clicktivism or slacktivism: where activists can participate in social movements through their laptops or smartphones.

Within hours of Jones’ remarks, Sydney social commentator, Jane Caro, created the Twitter hashtag #destroythejoint and the Twitter-verse was ablaze with angry condemnations of Jones’ remarks.

Soon after, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) lecturer, Jenna Price created the Destroy The Joint Facebook community page. Within months its membership had swelled to 20,000 helped along by the Sunday Telegraph’s report of Jones’ now notorious 23 September speech at a Sydney University Liberal Club function in which he said the PM’s recently deceased father had likely died of shame. (Jones later apologised).

The Destroy the Joint social media campaign was instrumental in applying public pressure – through threat of boycott – on companies advertising on Jones’ 2GB breakfast program to withdraw their ads.

Dozens did, including Mercedes Benz, Woolworths, Freedom Furniture, Coles, Bing Lee and Mazda.

An online petition at change.org calling on 2GB to sack Jones attracted more than 115,000 supporters.

On 7 October, 2GB owner, the Macquarie Radio Network, suspended all advertising on the show to protect its advertisers from pressure being applied by the #destroythejoint campaign, which Macquarie’s Chairman, Russell Tate, slammed as “cyber bullying”.  

Macquarie Radio estimated the boycott cost the station between $1 million and $1.5 million. Most advertisers returned to the program within weeks.

In the lead up to and during the controversy Jones’ program enjoyed an increase in ratings of 0.5 per cent to 17.3 per cent. This fell away to 15.4 per cent by February 2013. By late May Jones audience share was back at 17 per cent, pretty much where it was before the controversy erupted.

The #destroythejoint movement is an interesting study in the effectiveness of on-line activism.

Slacktivist sceptic, Evgeny Morozov argues “‘Slacktivism’ is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group”.

In the case of #destroythejoint, Caro, Price and their many thousands of supporters did have an effect. But was it long-term?

True, there was a short-term drop off in revenue for 2GB and Jones’ ratings fell in the months following but have now recovered.

What is certain, #destroythejoint put advertisers on notice that their brand and bottom line can be damaged if they associate themselves with remarks that offend a significant and easily mobilised proportion of the population.

Broadcasters and more importantly their masters will be more focussed on avoiding content which, while not in breach of any regulatory framework, offends public sensibilities. This probably would not have occurred 10 years ago.

Fans of on-line activism have been criticised for over eulogising its impact.

Beyond #destroythejoint clicktivism is seen most starkly in Australian political life through organisations such as GetUp!, inspired by the United States’ MoveOn.org and the global Avaaz.org.

Communications professional, James Norman, who works for the Australian Conservation Foundation, recalled a recent email from GetUp! which proclaimed: ''We did it! The ABC and SBS are safe, for now'.

GetUp! claimed newspaper advertisements it ran stopped plans by the Federal Coalition to privatise the ABC and SBS after a motion to that effect was placed on the agenda at a Liberal Party Victoria State Conference.

As Norman wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “The only problem was that “[Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott had already ruled out the policy a week before”.

Norman questions the effectiveness of clicktivism, describing it as “activism bound to news cycles, data gathering and emotive taglines - far removed from the urgency and camaraderie of traditional protest movements”.

“By embracing tried and tested methods of delivery of marketing, this kind of activism can have the effect of merely stroking people's desire to ‘do the right thing’, rather than engaging them in meaningful political struggle,” Norman argues.

US Author, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point; Blink), agrees, arguing the activists who spawned  the great (and importantly high-risk) campaigns for social change – the US Civil Rights Movement; the collapse of the Iron Curtain – share a crucial feature: they were recruited to the struggle by a close friend.

Each of these social upheavals had what Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, called “a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon”.

“The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all,” Gladwell writes in his New Yorker piece, ‘Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted’.

 “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.”

The journalist who first coined the term clicktivism, Micah White, argues a fundamental problem with clicktivism is that metrics value only what is measurable (follows, likes, re-tweets etc).

“Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of.

“The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky. A few banal pronouncements about 'democracy in action' coupled with an online petition will not usher in social transformation.”

Others disagree.

Mumbai journalist, Leo Mirani, argues that Gladwell wrongly defines activism as “as sit-ins, taking direct action, and confrontations on the streets”.

“However, if activism is about arousing awareness of people, changing people's minds, and influencing opinions across the world, then 'the revolution will be indeed be tweeted', 'hashtagged', and 'YouTubed',” Mirani writes in The Guardian in response to Gladwell.

Cindy Leonard, from Robert Morris University’s Bayer Centre for Non-profit Management, believes there is nothing different about gathering to protest in a public square or gathering in a Facebook group to support an opinion.

“If anything, the online gathering is safer, more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and has the ability to draw more people,” Leonard writes.

“In either case, the objective is getting the attention of the people who have the ability to create the desired change.”

A 2010 study by Georgetown University’s Centre for Social Impact Communication --  The Dynamics of Cause Engagement – is cited by defenders of slacktivism.

The US national survey concludes that people who frequently engaged in promotional social activity were:

  • As likely as non-social media promoters to donate

 

  • Twice as likely to volunteer their time

 

  • Twice as likely to take part in events like charity walks

 

  • More than twice as likely to buy products or services from companies that supported the cause

 

  • Three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of their cause

 

  • More than four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact political representatives


If #destroythejoint teaches us anything, it is that one communication faux pas has the potential to unleash a mass campaign against your organisation, damaging your brand and those of your customers and suppliers.

It may be short-lived but the damage wrought during the maelstrom can be significant.