The limits of Facebook activism

Yesterday afternoon, a cyclist died of injuries sustained when she was hit by a left-turning HGV in London. The incident happened on the site of what will be the North-South cycle superhighway – if it ever gets built. If it gets built, this kind of terrible “accident” can’t happen again. The problem is, the person chairing the TFL committee to decide whether or not the superhighway should be built is the finance director of a company that’s been secretly briefing against the superhighway.

I didn’t do the research required to uncover this information; I learned it from an email update to a 38 Degrees petition I signed a while back. The email was urging London-based people to write to their Assembly members about this shocking conflict of interest. Lobbying by corporate interests has prevented important cycling infrastructure from being built in the past and there’s nothing to stop it preventing the cycle superhighway from being built – unless Londoners speak out and get their elected representatives to hold TFL to account.

So, yesterday afternoon, I broke an unwritten rule. I run the Sustainable Witney Facebook account and I decided to summarise the story of that afternoon’s death, and the shady lobbying going on to ensure that similar deaths are not prevented in the future. Normally I only use the account for Witney news or national news relevant to Witney. I’ve never shared a London-only campaign before, but I thought this was important enough to break the rule for.

Then I broke a second rule: I actively asked non-London people to share the story. They don’t have representatives in the London Assembly to write to, but they can give the story a “signal boost” and help it reach people who are based in London and can act.

Then I shared the story on my personal Facebook account.

Then? Nothing.

Not a single person shared the campaign. My experiment in getting Sustainable Witney followers to engage with something happening outside Witney was obviously a failure – but what about my own followers? These include Londoners, cyclists and London cyclists. Not one person responded.

What if that woman had died of cancer on Friday afternoon instead? What if I’d posted a vague “tribute” to “raise awareness”? What if I’d described her as a “brave fighter” rather than as just someone trying to get somewhere safely? Something tells me I might have got a response.

What if I’d published a picture of myself with no make-up on, or pink hair, or wearing a bra over my clothes, or getting ice cubes thrown over me, and urged people to share the pic to “raise awareness”? Something tells me I’d have (useless) Facebook shares coming out the wazoo.

But instead, I was asking people to complete a simple action that could lead to a tangible chain of results in the near future. Write to your Assembly Member asking them to hold TFL to account, so that TFL will tackle this hideous conflict of interest, so London gets a new cycle superhighway built, so that there won’t be any more horrible, preventable injuries and deaths in this part of London. For people who don’t live in London, the action was even simpler: share this status in the hope that Londoners will see it.

And yet...nobody did it. I should point out for people unfamiliar with Facebook that sharing a status isn’t a complex process. It’s two clicks of the mouse. The people who didn't respond to my status yesterday were literally failing to lift a finger.


Theory 1: Facebook buried my status.

The status update didn’t include any pictures. It wasn’t written very snappily. It probably didn’t include any keywords telling a robot that it’s important. So maybe Facebook’s algorithms hid it so that most of the people who follow me (and Sustainable Witney) simply didn’t see it.

If Theory 1 is correct: Facebook is not the best place to start your campaign.

Theory 2: There was no opportunity to look good or express who you are.

The campaign I shared yesterday involved boring things like elected representatives and transport infrastructure. It didn’t involve anything particularly creative or amusing or heartfelt (unlike many of the anti-cancer online actions). Perhaps more people than I realised see Facebook as an arena for demonstrating their values. That means sharing things to prove that you’re a good person, that you’re against cancer (unlike all those other people who simply love cancer), that you’re a busy mum, that you know what autism is. But what I shared yesterday wasn’t about expressing your values for others to see – it was about getting a fairly boring (though easy) thing done.

If Theory 2 is correct: Facebook is not the best place to start your campaign.

Theory 3: Facebook is not the best place for activism.

My hunch is that if I’d shared the same thing on Twitter it would have spread very quickly indeed. I can’t test it for this particular campaign now, but I’ve shared similar things in the past and seen the RTs mounting up.

If Theory 3 is correct: Facebook is not the best place to start your campaign.

I still believe that “clicktivism” is a valid form of activism. I’ve been vocal in challenging the assumption that talking and persuading and sharing information is somehow “not real work”. Yesterday’s experience has made me see even more clearly that writing letters and even sharing social media updates is work – if it wasn’t, how would it be possible to shirk the task? So I learned two things yesterday:

  • “Clicktivism” is not the lowest possible level of political engagement. The lowest possible level of engagement is not engaging at all. (And I suspect that fake clicktivism – sharing sentiments with no tangible results – keeps many people at the lowest level by using the energy and goodwill and time that would otherwise go towards real clicktivism.)
  • If you’re launching a campaign and you want useful support for it, Facebook is definitely not the place to start.