Don’t knock clickivism: it represents the political participation aspirations of the modern citizen

Following a furious public backlash in 2011, the UK government abandoned plans to sell off 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland. The public forest campaign by 38 Degrees gathered over half a million signatures.
How do we define political participation? What does it mean to say an action is ‘political’? Is an action only ‘political’ if it takes place in the mainstream political arena; involving government, politicians or voting? Or is political participation something that we find in the most unassuming of places, in sports, home and work? This question, ‘what is politics’ is one that political scientists seem to have a lot of trouble dealing with, and with good reason. If we use an arena definition of politics, then we marginalise the politics of the everyday; the forms of participation and expression that develop between the cracks, through need and ingenuity. However, if we broaden our approach as so to adopt what is usually termed a process definition, then everything can become political. The problem here is that saying that everything is political is akin to saying nothing is political, and that doesn’t help anyone.

Over the years, this debate has plodded steadily along, with scholars on both ends of the spectrum fighting furiously to establish a working understanding. Then, the Internet came along and drew up new battle lines. The Internet is at its best when it provides a home for the disenfranchised, an environment where like-minded individuals can wipe free the dust of societal disassociation and connect and share content. However, the Internet brought with it a shift in power, particularly in how individuals conceptualised society and their role within it. The Internet, in addition to this role, provided a plethora of new and customisable modes of political participation. From the onset, a lot of these new forms of engagement were extensions of existing forms, broadening the everyday citizen’s participatory repertoire. There was a move from voting to e-voting, petitions to e-petitions, face-to-face communities to online communities; the Internet took what was already there and streamlined it, removing those pesky elements of time, space and identity.

Yet, as the Internet continues to develop, and we move into the ultra-heightened communicative landscape of the social web, new and unique forms of political participation take root, drawing upon those customisable environments and organic cyber migrations. The most prominent of these is clicktivism, sometimes also, unfairly, referred to as slacktivism. Clicktivism takes the fundamental features of browsing culture and turns them into a means of political expression. Quite simply, clicktivism refers to the simplification of online participatory processes: one-click online petitions, content sharing, social buttons (e.g. Facebook’s ‘Like’ button) etc.

For the most part, clicktivism is seen in derogatory terms, with the idea that the streamlining of online processes has created a societal disposition towards feel-good, ‘easy’ activism. From this perspective, clicktivism is a lazy or overly-convenient alternative to the effort and legitimacy of traditional engagement. Here, individuals engaging in clicktivism may derive some sense of moral gratification from their actions, but clicktivism’s capacity to incite genuine political change is severely limited. Some would go so far as to say that clicktivism has a negative impact on democratic systems, as it undermines an individual’s desire and need to participate in traditional forms of engagement; those established modes which mainstream political scholars understand as the backbone of a healthy, functioning democracy.

This idea that clicktivism isn’t ‘legitimate’ activism is fuelled by a general lack of understanding about what clicktivism actually involves. As a recent development in observed political action, clicktivism has received its fair share of attention in the political participation literature. However, for the most part, this literature has done a poor job of actually defining clicktivism. As such, clicktivism is not so much a contested notion, as an ill-defined one. The extant work continues to describe clicktivism in broad terms, failing to effectively establish what it does, and does not, involve. Indeed, as highlighted, the mainstream political participation literature saw clicktivism not as a specific form of online action, but rather as a limited and unimportant mode of online engagement.

However, to disregard emerging forms of engagement such as clicktivism because they are at odds with long-held notions of what constitutes meaningful ‘political’ engagement is a misguided and dangerous road to travel. Here, it is important that we acknowledge that a political act, even if it requires limited effort, has relevance for the individual, and, as such, carries worth. And this is where we see clicktivism challenging these traditional notions of political participation. To date, we have looked at clicktivism through an outdated lens; an approach rooted in traditional notions of democracy. However, the Internet has fundamentally changed how people understand politics, and, consequently, it is forcing us to broaden our understanding of the ‘political’, and of what constitutes political participation.

The Internet, in no small part, has created a more reflexive political citizen, one who has been given the tools to express dissatisfaction throughout all facets of their life, not just those tied to the political arena. Collective action underpinned by a developed ideology has been replaced by project orientated identities and connective action. Here, an individual’s desire to engage does not derive from the collective action frames of political parties, but rather from the individual’s self-evaluation of a project’s worth and their personal action frames.

Simply put, people now pick and choose what projects they participate in and feel little generalized commitment to continued involvement. And it is clicktivism which is leading the vanguard here. Clicktivism, as an impulsive, non-committed online political gesture, which can be easily replicated and that does not require any specialized knowledge, is shaped by, and reinforces, this change. It affords the project-oriented individual an efficient means of political participation, without the hassles involved with traditional engagement.

This is not to say, however, that clicktivism serves the same functions as traditional forms. Indeed, much more work is needed to understand the impact and effect that clicktivist techniques can have on social movements and political issues. However, and this is the most important point, clicktivism is forcing us to reconsider what we define as political participation. It does not overtly engage with the political arena, but provides avenues through which to do so. It does not incite genuine political change, but it makes people feel as if they are contributing. It does not politicize issues, but it fuels discursive practices. It may not function in the same way as traditional forms of engagement, but it represents the political participation aspirations of the modern citizen. Clicktivism has been bridging the dualism between the traditional and contemporary forms of political participation, and in its place establishing a participatory duality.

Clicktivism, and similar contemporary forms of engagement, are challenging how we understand political participation, and to ignore them because of what they don’t embody, rather than what they do, is to move forward with eyes closed.

Read the full article: Halupka, M. (2014) Clicktivism: A Systematic Heuristic. Policy and Internet 6 (2) 115-132.

Max Halupka is a PhD candidate at the ANZOG Institute for Governance, University of Canberra. His research interests include youth political participation, e-activism, online engagement, hacktivism, and fluid participatory structures.

Finnish decision to allow same-sex marriage “shows the power of citizen initiatives”

November rainbows in front of the Finnish parliament house in Helsinki, one hour before the vote for same-sex marriage. Photo by Anne Sairio.
November rainbows in front of the Finnish parliament house in Helsinki, one hour before the vote for same-sex marriage. Photo by Anni Sairio.

In a pivotal vote today, the Finnish parliament voted in favour of removing references to gender in the country’s marriage law, which will make it possible for same-sex couples to get married. It was predicted to be an extremely close vote, but in the end gender neutrality won with 105 votes to 92. Same-sex couples have been able to enter into registered partnerships in Finland since 2002, but this form of union lacks some of the legal and more notably symbolic privileges of marriage. Today’s decision is thus a historic milestone in the progress towards tolerance and equality before the law for all the people of Finland.

Today’s parliamentary decision is also a milestone for another reason: it is the first piece of “crowdsourced” legislation on its way to becoming law in Finland. A 2012 constitutional change made it possible for 50,000 citizens or more to propose a bill to the parliament, through a mechanism known as the citizen initiative. Citizens can develop bills on a website maintained by the Open Ministry, a government-supported citizen association. The Open Ministry aims to be the deliberative version of government ministries that do the background work for government bills. Once the text of a citizen bill is finalised, citizens can also endorse it on a website maintained by the Ministry of Justice. If a bill attracts more than 50,000 endorsements within six months, it is delivered to the parliament.

A significant reason behind the creation of the citien initiative system was to increase citizen involvement in decision making and thus enhance the legitimacy of Finland’s political system: to make people feel that they can make a difference. Finland, like most Western democracies, is suffering from dwindling voter turnout rates (though in the last parliamentary elections, domestic voter turnout was a healthy 70.5 percent). However, here lies one of the potential pitfalls of the citizen initiative system. Of the six citizen bills delivered to the parliament so far, parliamentarians have outright rejected most proposals. According to research presented by Christensen and his colleagues at our Internet, Politics & Policy conference in Oxford in September (and to be published in issue 7:1 of Policy and Internet, March 2015), there is a risk that the citizen iniative system ends up having an effect that is opposite from what was intended:

“[T]hose who supported [a crowdsourced bill rejected by the parliament] experienced a drop in political trust as a result of not achieving this outcome. This shows that political legitimacy may well decline when participants do not get the intended result (cf. Budge, 2012). Hence, if crowdsourcing legislation in Finland is to have a positive impact on political legitimacy, it is important that it can help produce popular Citizens’ initiatives that are subsequently adopted by Parliament.”

One reason why citizen initiatives have faced a rough time in the parliament is that they are a somewhat odd addition to the parliament’s existing ways of working. The Finnish parliament, like most parliaments in representative democracies, is used to working in a government-opposition arrangement, where the government proposes bills, and parliamentarians belonging to government parties are expected to support those bills and resist bills originating from the opposition. Conversely, opposition leaders expect their members to be loyal to their own initiatives. In this arrangement, citizen initiatives have fallen into a no-man’s land where they are endorsed by neither government nor opposition members. Thanks to the party whip system, their only hope of passing has been in being adopted by the government. But the whole point of citizen initiatives is that they would allow bills not proposed by the government to reach parliament, making the exercise rather pointless.

The marriage equality citizen initiative was able to break this pattern not only because it enjoyed immense popular support, but also because many parliamentarians saw marriage equality as a matter of conscience, where the party whip system wouldn’t apply. Parliamentarians across party lines voted in support and against the initiative, in many cases ignoring their party leaders’ instructions.

Prime Minister Alexander Stubb commented immediately after the vote that the outcome “shows the power of citizen initiatives”, “citizen democracy and direct democracy”. Now that a precedent has been set, it is possible that subsequent citizen initiatives, too, get judged more on their merits than on who proposed them. Today’s decision on marriage equality may thus turn out to be historic not only for advancing equality and fairness, but also for helping to define crowdsourcing’s role in Finnish parliamentary decision making.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

The life and death of political news: using online data to measure the impact of the audience agenda

Image of the Telegraph’s state of the art “hub and spoke” newsroom layout by David Sim.
The political agenda has always been shaped by what the news media decide to publish — through their ability to broadcast to large, loyal audiences in a sustained manner, news editors have the ability to shape ‘political reality’ by deciding what is important to report. Traditionally, journalists pass to their editors from a pool of potential stories; editors then choose which stories to publish. However, with the increasing importance of online news, editors must now decide not only what to publish and where, but how long it should remain prominent and visible to the audience on the front page of the news website.

The question of how much influence the audience has in these decisions has always been ambiguous. While in theory we might expect journalists to be attentive to readers, journalism has also been characterized as a profession with a “deliberate…ignorance of audience wants” (Anderson, 2011b). This ‘anti-populism’ is still often portrayed as an important journalistic virtue, in the context of telling people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear. Recently, however, attention has been turning to the potential impact that online audience metrics are having on journalism’s “deliberate ignorance”. Online publishing provides a huge amount of information to editors about visitor numbers, visit frequency, and what visitors choose to read and how long they spend reading it. Online editors now have detailed information about what articles are popular almost as soon as they are published, with these statistics frequently displayed prominently in the newsroom.

The rise of audience metrics has created concern both within the journalistic profession and academia, as part of a broader set of concerns about the way journalism is changing online. Many have expressed concern about a ‘culture of click’, whereby important but unexciting stories make way for more attention grabbing pieces, and editorial judgments are overridden by traffic statistics. At a time when media business models are under great strain, the incentives to follow the audience are obvious, particularly when business models increasingly rely on revenue from online traffic and advertising. The consequences for the broader agenda-setting function of the news media could be significant: more prolific or earlier readers might play a disproportionate role in helping to select content; particular social classes or groupings that read news online less frequently might find their issues being subtly shifted down the agenda.

The extent to which such a populist influence exists has attracted little empirical research. Many ethnographic studies have shown that audience metrics are being captured in online newsrooms, with anecdotal evidence for the importance of traffic statistics on an article’s lifetime (Anderson 2011b, MacGregor, 2007). However, many editors have emphasised that popularity is not a major determining factor (MacGregor, 2007), and that news values remain significant in terms of placement of news articles.

In order to assess the possible influence of audience metrics on decisions made by political news editors, we undertook a systematic, large-scale study of the relationship between readership statistics and article lifetime. We examined the news cycles of five major UK news outlets (the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Mirror) over a period of six weeks, capturing their front pages every 15 minutes, resulting in over 20,000 front-page captures and more than 40,000 individual articles. We measure article readership by capturing information from the BBC’s “most read” list of news articles (twelve percent of the articles were featured at some point on the ‘most read’ list, with a median time to achieving this status of two hours, and an average article life of 15 hours on the front page). Using the Cox Proportional Hazards model (which allows us to quantify the impact of an article’s appearance on the ‘most read’ list on its chance of survival) we asked whether an article’s being listed in a ‘most read’ column affected the length of time it remained on the front page.

We found that ‘most read’ articles had, on average, a 26% lower chance of being removed from the front page than equivalent articles which were not on the most read list, providing support for the idea that online editors are influenced by readership statistics. In addition to assessing the general impact of readership statistics, we also wanted to see whether this effect differs between ‘political’ and ‘entertainment’ news. Research on participatory journalism has suggested that online editors might be more willing to allow audience participation in areas of soft news such as entertainment, arts, sports, etc. We find a small amount of evidence for this claim, though the difference between the two categories was very slight.

Finally, we wanted to assess whether there is a ‘quality’ / ‘tabloid’ split. Part of the definition of tabloid style journalism lies precisely in its willingness to follow the demands of its audience. However, we found the audience ‘effect’ (surprisingly) to be most obvious in the quality papers. For tabloids, ‘most read’ status actually had a slightly negative effect on article lifetime. We wouldn’t argue that tabloid editors actively reject the wishes of their audience; however we can say that these editors are no more likely to follow their audience than the typical ‘quality’ editor, and in fact may be less so. We do not have a clear explanation for this difference, though we could speculate that, as tabloid publications are already more tuned in to the wishes of their audience, the appearance of readership statistics makes less practical difference to the overall product. However it may also simply be the case that the online environment is slowly producing new journalistic practices for which the tabloid / quality distinction will be of less usefulness.

So on the basis of our study, we can say that high-traffic articles do in fact spend longer in the spotlight than ones that attract less readership: audience readership does have a measurable impact on the lifespan of political news. The audience is no longer the unknown quantity it was in offline journalism: it appears to have a clear impact on journalistic practice. The question that remains, however, is whether this constitutes evidence of a new ‘populism’ in journalism; or whether it represents (as editors themselves have argued) the simple striking of a balance between audience demands and news values.

Read the full article: Bright, J., and Nicholls, T. (2014) The Life and Death of Political News: Measuring the Impact of the Audience Agenda Using Online Data. Social Science Computer Review 32 (2) 170-181.


Anderson, C. W. (2011) Between creative and quantified audiences: Web metrics and changing patterns of newswork in local US newsrooms. Journalism 12 (5) 550-566.

MacGregor, P. (2007) Tracking the Online Audience. Journalism Studies 8 (2) 280-298.

OII Resarch Fellow Jonathan Bright is a political scientist specialising in computational and ‘big data’ approaches to the social sciences. His major interest concerns studying how people get information about the political process, and how this is changing in the internet era.

Tom Nicholls is a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research interests include the impact of technology on citizen/government relationships, the Internet’s implications for public management and models of electronic public service delivery.

Predicting elections on Twitter: a different way of thinking about the data

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, centre, waving to crowd, after delivering his acceptance speech on the final night of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Image by NewsHour.

Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the potential of social media as a means to understand public opinion. Driven by an interest in the potential of so-called “big data”, this development has been fuelled by a number of trends. Governments have been keen to create techniques for what they term “horizon scanning”, which broadly means searching for the indications of emerging crises (such as runs on banks or emerging natural disasters) online, and reacting before the problem really develops. Governments around the world are already committing massive resources to developing these techniques. In the private sector, big companies’ interest in brand management has fitted neatly with the potential of social media monitoring. A number of specialised consultancies now claim to be able to monitor and quantify reactions to products, interactions or bad publicity in real time.

It should therefore come as little surprise that, like other research methods before, these new techniques are now crossing over into the competitive political space. Social media monitoring, which in theory can extract information from tweets and Facebook posts and quantify positive and negative public reactions to people, policies and events has an obvious utility for politicians seeking office. Broadly, the process works like this: vast datasets relating to an election, often running into millions of items, are gathered from social media sites such as Twitter. These data are then analysed using natural language processing software, which automatically identifies qualities relating to candidates or policies and attributes a positive or negative sentiment to each item. Finally, these sentiments and other properties mined from the text are totalised, to produce an overall figure for public reaction on social media.

These techniques have already been employed by the mainstream media to report on the 2010 British general election (when the country had its first leaders debate, an event ripe for this kind of research) and also in the 2012 US presidential election. This growing prominence led my co-author Mike Jensen of the University of Canberra and myself to question: exactly how useful are these techniques for predicting election results? In order to answer this question, we carried out a study on the Republican nomination contest in 2012, focused on the Iowa Caucus and Super Tuesday. Our findings are published in the current issue of Policy and Internet.

There are definite merits to this endeavour. US candidate selection contests are notoriously hard to predict with traditional public opinion measurement methods. This is because of the unusual and unpredictable make-up of the electorate. Voters are likely (to greater or lesser degrees depending on circumstances in a particular contest and election laws in the state concerned) to share a broadly similar outlook, so the electorate is harder for pollsters to model. Turnout can also vary greatly from one cycle to the next, adding an additional layer of unpredictability to the proceedings.

However, as any professional opinion pollster will quickly tell you, there is a big problem with trying to predict elections using social media. The people who use it are simply not like the rest of the population. In the case of the US, research from Pew suggests that only 16 per cent of internet users use Twitter, and while that figure goes up to 27 per cent of those aged 18-29, only 2 per cent of over 65s use the site. The proportion of the electorate voting for within those categories, however, is the inverse: over 65s vote at a relatively high rate compared to the 18-29 cohort. furthermore, given that we know (from research such as Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy) that the only a very small proportion of people online actually create content on politics, those who are commenting on elections become an even more unusual subset of the population.

Thus (and I can say this as someone who does use social media to talk about politics!) we are looking at an unrepresentative sub-set (those interested in politics) of an unrepresentative sub-set (those using social media) of the population. This is hardly a good omen for election prediction, which relies on modelling the voting population as closely as possible. As such, it seems foolish to suggest that a simply culmination of individual preferences can simply be equated to voting intentions.

However, in our article we suggest a different way of thinking about social media data, more akin to James Surowiecki’s idea of The Wisdom of Crowds. The idea here is that citizens commenting on social media should not be treated like voters, but rather as commentators, seeking to understand and predict emerging political dynamics. As such, the method we operationalized was more akin to an electoral prediction market, such as the Iowa Electronic Markets, than a traditional opinion poll.

We looked for two things in our dataset: sudden changes in the number of mentions of a particular candidate and also words that indicated momentum for a particular candidate, such as “surge”. Our ultimate finding was that this turned out to be a strong predictor. We found that the former measure had a good relationship with Rick Santorum’s sudden surge in the Iowa caucus, although it did also tend to disproportionately-emphasise a lot of the less successful candidates, such as Michelle Bachmann. The latter method, on the other hand, picked up the Santorum surge without generating false positives, a finding certainly worth further investigation.

Our aim in the paper was to present new ways of thinking about election prediction through social media, going beyond the paradigm established by the dominance of opinion polling. Our results indicate that there may be some value in this approach.

Read the full paper: Michael J. Jensen and Nick Anstead (2013) Psephological investigations: Tweets, votes, and unknown unknowns in the republican nomination process. Policy and Internet 5 (2) 161–182.

Dr Nick Anstead was appointed as a Lecturer in the LSE’s Department of Media and Communication in September 2010, with a focus on Political Communication. His research focuses on the relationship between existing political institutions and new media, covering such topics as the impact of the Internet on politics and government (especially e-campaigning), electoral competition and political campaigns, the history and future development of political parties, and political mobilisation and encouraging participation in civil society.

Dr Michael Jensen is a Research Fellow at the ANZSOG Institute for Governance (ANZSIG), University of Canberra. His research spans the subdisciplines of political communication, social movements, political participation, and political campaigning and elections. In the last few years, he has worked particularly with the analysis of social media data and other digital artefacts, contributing to the emerging field of computational social science.

Presenting the moral imperative: effective storytelling strategies by online campaigning organisations

Online campaigning organisations are on the rise. They have captured the imagination of citizens and scholars alike with their ability to use rapid response tactics to engage with public policy debate and mobilize citizens. Early on Andrew Chadwick (2007) labeled these new campaign organisations as ‘hybrids’: using both online and offline political action strategies, as well as intentionally switching repertoires to sometimes act like a mass mobilisation social movement, and other times like an insider interest group.

These online campaigning organisations run multi-issue agendas, are geographically decentralized, and run sophisticated media strategies. The best known of these are MoveOn in the US, internationally focused Avaaz, and GetUp! in Australia. However, new online campaigning organisations are emerging all the time that more often than not have direct lineage through former staff and similar tactics to this first wave. These newer organisations include the UK-based 38 Degrees, SumOfUs that works on consumer issues to hold corporations accountable, and Change.Org, a for-profit organisation that hosts and develops petitions for grassroots groups.

Existing civil society focused organisations are also being challenged to fundamentally change their approach, to move political tactics and communications online, and to grow their member lists. David Karpf (2012) has branded this “MoveOn Effect”, where the success of online campaigning organisations like MoveOn has fundamentally changed and disrupted the advocacy organisation scene. But how has this shift occurred? How have these new organisations succeeded in being both innovative and politically successful?

One increasingly common answer is to focus on how they have developed low threshold online tactics where the risk to participants is reduced. This includes issue and campaign specific online petitions, letter writing, emails, donating money, and boycotts. The other answer is to focus more closely on the discursive tactics these organisations use in their campaigns, based on a shared commitment to a storytelling strategy, and the practical realisation of a ‘theory of change’. That is, to ask how campaigns produce successful stories that follow a concrete theory of why taking action inevitably leads to a desired result.

Storytelling is a device for explaining politics and a campaign via “cause and effect relations, through its sequencing of events, rather than by appeals to standards of logic and proof” (Polletta et al. 2011, 111). These campaign stories characteristically have a plot and identifiable characters, a beginning and middle to the story, but the recipient of the story can create, or rather act out, the end. Framing is important to understanding social movement action but a narrative or storytelling driven analysis focuses more on how language or rhetoric is used, and reveals the underlying “common sense” and emotional frames used in online campaigns’ delivery of messages (Polletta 2009). Polletta et al. (2011, 122) suggest that activists have been successful against better resourced and influential opponents and elites when they “sometimes but not always, have been able to exploit popular associations of narrative with people over power, and moral urgency over technical rationality”.

We have identified four stages of storytelling that need to occur for a campaign to be successful:

  1. An emotional identification with the issue by the story recipient, to mobilize participation
  2. A shared sense of community on the issue, to build solidarity (‘people over power’)
  3. Moral urgency for action (rather than technical persuasion), to resolve the issue and create social change
  4. Securing of public and political support by neutralising counter-movements.

The new online campaigning organisations all prioritise a storytelling approach in their campaigns, using it to build their own autobiographical story and to differentiate what they do from ‘politics as usual’, characterised as party-based, adversarial politics. Harvard scholar and organising practitioner Marshall Ganz’s ideas on the practice of storytelling underpin the philosophy of the New Organizing Institute, which provides training for increasing numbers of online activists. Having received training, these professional campaigners informally join the network of established and emerging ‘theory of change’ organisations such as MoveOn, AVAAZ, Organising for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, SumOfUs, and so on.

GetUp! is a member of this network, has over 600,000 members in Australia, and has conducted high-profile public policy campaigns on issues as diverse as mental health, electoral law, same-sex marriage, and climate change. GetUp!’s communications strategy tries to use storytelling to reorient Australian political debate — and the nature of politics itself — in an affective way. And underpinning all their political tactics is the construction of effective online campaign stories. GetUp! has used stories to help citizens, and to a lesser extent, decision-makers, identify with an issue, build community, and act in recognition of the moral urgency for political change.

Yet despite GetUp!’s commitment to a storytelling technique, it does not always work — these organisations rarely publicise their failed campaigns, or those that do not even get past the initial email ‘ask’. It is important to look at how campaigns unfold to see how storytelling develops, and also to judge whether it is a success or not. This moves the analysis onto an organisation’s whole campaign, rather than studying only decontextualised emails or online petitions. In contrasting two campaigns in-depth we judged one on mental health policy to be a success in meeting the four storytelling criteria; and the other on climate change policy (which was promoted externally as a success) to actually be a storytelling failure.

The mental health story was able to build solidarity and emotional identification around families and friends of those with illness (not sufferers themselves) after celebrity experts launched the campaign to bring awareness to and increase funding for mental health. Mental health was presented by GetUp! as a purely moral dilemma, with very little mention by any opponents of the economic implications of policy reform. In the end the policy was changed, an extra $2.2 billion of funding for mental health was announced in the 2011 Federal Budget, and the Australian Prime Minister appeared with GetUp! in an online video to make the funding announcement.

GetUp’s climate change storytelling, however, failed on all four criteria. Despite national policy change taking place similar to what they had advocated, GetUp!’s climate change campaign did not achieve the level of member or public mobilisation achieved by their mental health campaign. GetUp! used partisan, adversarial tactics that can be partly attributed to climate change becoming an increasingly polarised issue in Australian political debate. This was particularly the case as the oppositional counter-movement successfully reframed climate change as solely an economic issue, focusing on the imposition of an expensive new tax. This story defeated GetUp’s moral urgency story, and their attempt to create ‘people-power’ mobilised for a shared environmental concern.

Why is thinking about this important? For a few reasons. It helps us to see online tactics within the context of a broader political campaign, and challenges us to think about how to judge both successful mobilisation and political influence of hybrid online campaign organisations. Yet it also points to the limitations of an affective approach based on moral urgency alone. Technical persuasion and, more often than not, economic reality still matter for both mobilisation and political change.


Chadwick, Andrew (2007) “Digital Network Repertoires and Organizational Hybridity” Political Communication, 24 (3): 283-301.

Karpf, David (2012) The MoveOn Effect: The unexpected transformation of American political advocacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polletta, Francesca (2009) “Storytelling in social movements” in Culture, Social Movements and Protest ed. Hank Johnston Surrey: Ashgate, 33-54.

Polletta, Francesca, Pang Ching, Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner, and Alice Motes (2011) “The sociology of storytelling” Annual Review of Sociology, 37: 109–30.

Read the full paper: Vromen, A. and Coleman, W. (2013) Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! in Australia. Policy and Internet 5 (1).