Online Activism as “Virtue-Signalling”

An article in The Guardian from 2014 about a “Save Darfur” page on Facebook said that:

At its height, this cause was one of the largest on the social network. The research team analysed the behaviour of its members over a 989-day period. Out of the one million-plus people who had signed up, less than 3000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years – pitiful statistics compared to the wider Darfur campaign, which raised over $1m in 2008 alone. As the authors point out, the page simply conjured the “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing”.

Over the last three years this kind of “slacktivism” has been given a name: virtue-signalling. James Bartholomew, a British journalist claims to have coined it, and in an article for The Spectator described it as:

the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous.

By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

First we have to look at the ways in which online activism differs from traditional, out-on-the-streets-with-placards-protesting activism.

Traditional activism often represents only a small fraction of public opinion. A Dublin protest with ten thousand people might be reported with much interest by the media, but the press seldom takes into account the opinions of the hundreds of thousands who stayed home. The reasons for people not protesting obviously vary. Take a movement like Repeal the 8th, the abortion rights group. In March 2017 they had a widely publicised march in Dublin. The Irish Times reported that “thousands” protested. Lovin’ Dublin put the figure at 15,000. Over the following weeks further related protests took place, like the one outside the Dail “to oppose the decision to allow ownership of the €300m taxpayer-funded National Maternity Hospital to be given to The Religious Sisters of Charity”.

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The reality on the ground often lies in the application of simple mathematics. The number of people living in Dublin is 1.345 million. 15,000 protestors represents about 1% of the population. What does this mean? Does it mean only 1% of the city sympathises with the Repeal the 8th movement? No. But people who do not actively demonstrate do so for a number of reasons.

There are people who simply disagree with the motives of the activists in general. Ireland is – relatively speaking, when compared to most other countries in the European Union – conservative on the matter of abortion. So clearly it would be folly to expect especially large turnouts on such a controversial topic.

Most protestors are of a certain demographic. Images from the Irish Times’ report of the Repeal march will illustrate what I mean.

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Most protestors pictured look of university age. These are the exact kind of people who have the time and energy to demonstrate. They are young, have plenty of free time, lots of energy, and are unlikely to have serious jobs, bills to pay or children to look after. This means that demonstrations fail to give an accurate impression of public opinion. This is why liberal people seem to be genuinely in shock when Fine Gael, the Conservatives, Donald Trump and Brexit win votes. This echo chamber idea was raised by Adam Curtis in his short 2016 film Living in an Unreal World

Protestors fail to realise there are multitudes of people who have families, are tired after a long day’s work, are in middle age and above, who simply don’t have the time or the energy to protest. They also forget that older people are happy to do their “protesting” at the ballot box. Governments know this. When protestors say that they feel like the State doesn’t care, they are right. They don’t.

How is this related to online activism? Well, it tells us something. With online activism – particularly Facebook, which has almost 2 billion users as of early 2017 – the sample size is enormous. The tired middle-aged people who don’t have the time or the energy for street activism have less of a problem finding time for virtue-signalling Likes on social media. Granted, just like street protests, a certain type of demographic uses social media, though the stereotype of the young tech-savvy college student as typical user is long gone.

The longer that goes on and the more ubiquitous social media becomes, the more likely we are to be able to make accurate predictions about public opinion. Famously the pollsters got both Trump’s election and Brexit wrong. The Washington Post reported in October 2016 that “Donald Trump’s chances of winning are approaching zero”. In the lead up to Brexit almost every poll indicated that Remain would win.

How could they have gotten it so wrong?

The obvious answer is that people polled were afraid to answer honestly. We know that in the United States just 7% of journalists are Republicans, and Republicans have a right to feel aggrieved about this given that a Republican sits in the White House. They often perceive demonisation by an overwhelmingly liberal media and many may answer untruthfully to a question like: “So are you going to vote for Hillary Clinton, America’s first ever female president, or are you going to vote for Donald Trump, you sexist, racist piece of shit?”

Forget about raising money or even changing the law: online activism’s importance will lie in its ability to forecast political change and public opinion.

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