And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

One click to achieve absolute apathy

Anyone following the news of late will be familiar with the UK governments’ efforts to pass a bill reforming the NHS, apparently in order to save it, but in the minds of sceptics and apparently most health professionals, it’s more likely to destroy it. David Cameron is being accused of violating a pre-election promise not to change the constitution of our national health service and deputy PM Nick Clegg is once again labelled a turncoat and a coward for not standing up to his coalition mates in the Conservative party.

A tweet appeared in my feed this morning by writer Caitlin Moran, advising her many followers to visit a site called The Green Benches, run by a Dr. Éoin Clarke. The site brands itself “your complete one click kit to saving the NHS”.

Now, let’s be clear: the NHS Bill is a pile of nonsense and shouldn’t pass. And anybody making efforts to fight it should be commended for their efforts. But. There’s always a But.

The site, tastefully designed in the vintage style of the late 90s, consists of a couple of dropdown boxes where users can select MPs who’ll be voting on the bill, and then send them a pre-written email protesting it. They can then scroll down and click an automatic Tweet button, which sends the same generic sentence to the Lord / MP of their choice (some 20 or so selections).

As of writing, the site’s similarly retro hit counter boasts over 900,000 visitors, presumably a good few of them choosing to participate in the ridiculously-simplified process. The cynic in me notes that the site itself is prominently loaded with logos for “Labour Left”, and twice asks visitors to sign a pledge stating they won’t vote Lib Dem again if the bill passes, but we’ll assume no ulterior motives here.

So what’s the problem? Well, we’ve been here before. Remember the disputed Iranian elections a few years ago? You know, the ones where social media brought down fascism. Or something. Twitter users confounded the Iranian censors by changing their locations to Tehran, and some wags even changed their avatars to a green-hued tint to support democratic elections. So far, so social, if we understand social to mean “half-arsed and convenience-driven”.

Do we really think MPs and Lords are going to take seriously a couple of thousand of pre-written tweets coming at them in waves as each celebrity notices the trending topic and figures their political credentials could do with a refresh? Likewise the emails — almost every other similar site to Green Benches that I’ve seen at least asks users to customise the form letter a little, make it their own. This one doesn’t even let you edit it before you send it.

Sites like this are fantastic at letting people continue to sit on their arses and pontificate online about how shit the Tories are, then get the feelgood factor when they spam a few dozen politicians with barely-read filler text. The politicians and those on the receiving end of this cavalcade of spam will simply treat it with the lack of care and attention that the people sending it to them did. They will ignore it.

The digital age has ushered in some of the most exciting and challenging developments in human history. As a tool for organising and spreading stories, it’s unrivalled. As a tool for allowing people to take the easiest possible way out, or to make the least imaginable effort to understand a topic, though, it’s top of the list. Kudos to Clarke for attempting to make an impact, but perhaps a few things could have been considered beforehand:

  1. If you don’t give people the chance to add their own voice, then your protest is as weak as 1 voice, not 1 million.
  2. A tagline like “one click to save the NHS” is not only laughably hubristic, but emphasises all of the worst aspects of the idea.
  3. The more we reinforce the idea that connecting social media to the protest and demonstration movement can only be about sending a few emails or tweets, the less chance we have of ever effecting real change through it.

The London riots, for all their negativity, did prove one thing. Small, interlinked groups of people, all over the country, were able to organise and unify, outrun the police, and achieve their goals, all through social media. Clearly I’m not advocating burning shops down or looting JD Sports, but they certainly didn’t waste time sending prewritten tweets to MPs. There are debates to be had about direct action or the more disruptive forms of social protest, and I’m not the man to argue them, but it’s pretty clear to me that we need to make a bit more of an effort if we want to save our NHS. One click just isn’t worth the keypress.

  • Constance

    The site you refer to is ranked the no.1 political site in the UK.

    It has thousands of articles on various topics.

    People have busy lives, the title is supposed to grab them

  • Constance

    Ahh the link if you wish to check the UK rankings is here

  • Joanna Gates

    Because new technology allows it, someone will invent something like this, and destroy twitter’s usefulness. However, can you provide another way of getting a message thru, or making people who have the power pissed off enough to take note? Catch 22 maybe!

  • I made the tool that you’re not too fond of on the web site in question.
    You state; “almost every other similar site to Green Benches that I’ve seen at least asks users to customise the form letter a little, make it their own. This one doesn’t even let you edit it before you send it.”
    Well.. it opens in *your own* email client and so is *obviously* editable before *YOU* (the user) sends it that you’d have to walk around with your head wedged firmly up your arse not to notice.
    And you didn’t.
    Sorry if the thing I made wasted your time in *making you* waste *even more* of *your precious time* writing a blog attempting to deny your fuckwittery.

  • Clare

    Stay classy, Brian.

    Look the fact is that most of the people using Green Benches are slacktivists who will click send and pat themselves smugly on the back for saving the NHS.

    Meanwhile MPs will continue marking them as spam and deleting them before they ever reach the inbox.

    Automated petitions like this simply don’t work. People need to actually engage with the issues and then go to their MP as an individual voice from that constituency. Except they’re not going to bother, because they think they just solved the problem with your “one click kit”

  • Dave Hough

    I sent my own emails based around this one, with adaptations. That people show they’re engaged with the issue is a good thing, and the new media enables mass participation.

    Unfortunately, history tells us that mass public participation is often ignored by our political masters, but that argument is for another day.

    Clare, I understand the point you are making, but a few weeks ago I did write to my own MP, and she (Conservative) hasn’t even bothered to acknowledge receipt, let alone answer. An aide finally replied rather snippily when I complained, and copied it to the chief whip.

    That our politics needs reform, so that MPs are more engaged with their constituents concerns is another facotr that needs addressing.

  • “Class is like a Ford Cortina Mark 2, you’ve either got one or you haven’t.
    And I got one.”
    Sorry if building that tool makes me a “slacktivist”.
    People are busy, and sometimes a strong unified message is what’s needed.
    Besides which, as I point out above, it is any person’s final decision whether to edit, or send, the final message.
    No one is forcing anyone to do any of it are they?
    It is a one off campaign towards the end of the final reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.
    People do not want it, every poll shows this.
    Yet Lansley and the yellows plough on regardless.
    Not voted for by the public, the biggest reorganisation of the NHS in its history.
    What have *you* done?
    I don’t know, but you *can*, and you *will*, whinge about some people who have a little campaign to attempt to stop this affront to democracy.

  • Obviously, different campaigns carry different weight. If all I have done is one-click an email to my localLib-Dem MP, that isn’t going to be as powerful a statement as if I riot and burn down his house (which is what this blog seems to advocate).
    But the one-click email *does* allow me, in my room, to tell my local Lib-Dem MP that I agree with the opposition … and if 900,000 other people say the same, then the power of the campaign comes in the cumulative numbers,rather than in the individual act.
    In the meantime, I have a voice which I did not have before. It simply consisted in saying ‘No’, once, but I got to tell someone who *can* make a difference what I want.

    The world is full of people who sneer, who could have done it *so* much better … but didn’t.
    When you *do* something, part of price is that you are always going to get someone who couldn’t and didn’t do anything sneering at you.

    I would respectfully suggest that you stop sneering and see if *you* can do anything.

  • Matt

    @Brian: cheers for the clarification on the email edit option — this feature should be made much more explicit on the site itself. I didn’t click through to send an email because I didn’t want to send a generic form letter. If the site made it clearer what was going to happen, it might encourage “floating voters” like myself.

    To Brian & John: it’s a bit easy to just write my blog entry off as “sneering” or “whingeing”. Have another read. I support opposition to the bill and support those trying to do something against it. I also suggest some ways to improve the efforts at action and focusing the messages. Clare above already linked to one MP’s site highlighting his instant mark-as-spam action on these messages. Brian’s point that “people are busy” doesn’t mean that the standards of protest should drop. The easier something becomes, the weaker the point it makes.

    Finally John, it’s a bit of a cheap shot to say “that isn’t going to be as powerful a statement as if I riot and burn down his house (which is what this blog seems to advocate)” when one of the final lines of this post is “Clearly I’m not advocating burning shops down”. As above, give it another read.

  • Neil Ferguson

    Matt; in general, I always find the negative tones of blog entries such as this a little over-bearing. In some ways, I’m always left with the impression of it feeling much more like the misanthropy of a reasonably intelligent and motivated person, wrapped up in more opulent plumes. I have always disliked the underlying notion. Please don’t read more than I say in my next comment because I do not direct it at you, personally, but too often, these kinds of blogs read too much like, “I am better than the people who do this.”

    The arguments made by your detractors above, about people being busy, don’t hold. On this, I think you and I will agree – it’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of laze. The problem with laze is that it lacks motivation. The whole gist of this entry is that MPs ignore mass spamming. I have no doubt that this is, generally, true. That said, when the alternative is doing nothing at all, one must ask what is more effective. Nothing is much easier to ignore than a minor inconvenience.

    You have to rely, strongly, on an assumption that ‘one click activism’ like this displaces individuals who, otherwise, may visit their constituency MP or may write a more personalised email. I doubt that there is much of this effect; the people who actively engage with their elected representatives in the way you describe are typically the people who are already away of the ineffectiveness of the methods discussed.

    Thus, I just don’t believe that your expressed annoyance really holds. Effective or not, I find it hard to find major fault in anything that facilitates individuals doing ‘something’, no matter how easily ignored it is, over ‘nothing’. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t like this notion of ‘sofa activism’ much but I think we need to be realistic about just how motivated some people are.

    As a matter of interest, have you written, personally, to any MPs or visited a constituency workshop to raise your own concerns?

  • Use this gadget to email grassroots #LibDem members an urgent appeal to save our #NHS 😉

  • Rhiannon Lockley

    You’re making some fairly unsupported assumptions here:

    1) All people who respond to this “quick-click” campaign have not been involved in any other campaigning (e.g. lobbies, surgery visits) – most of the people I know involved have done both

    2) The “quick-click” is something which will in some way CAUSE people to not be involved in other campaigning (evidence?) or even stops the campaigns themselves from happening.

    3) That it is a better use of your time during a period we all recognise as being crucial to denigrate someone on your own side’s efforts than to put your energy into campaigns of your own preference.

  • Andy Hicks

    You fail to understand how Parliamentary communication works. Email has to be responded to as do letters. Sending a personal response to an MP is no different to a viral. The MPs measure postal and email and twitter reponses to policy. mass reposnes matter. These gadgets offer a sample letter/tweet. What is necessary in campaigns to succeed is sheer numbers taking up an idea, which is why Tesco backed out of workfare a few days ago. We are using a similar model and I am well aware of people using this platform as its the only one they can and indeed of other people using multiple activities. None is more sucessful or valid than another.

  • Matt

    Hi Rhiannon,

    To respond to your points:

    1) I haven’t explicitly stated that I believe everyone doing the “one click” protest isn’t doing anything else. I would say though that anecdotal evidence about “most of the people [you] know” doesn’t really prove anything and I would bet that the majority of the 900,000 people who’ve visited the site haven’t (or won’t) go on to attend surgeries or do any other kind of lobbying. This is the whole point I’m making here: by making this kind of thing trivially easy and marketing it as such, it encourages people to be even more lazy and make even less effort, not more. I’m sure there are a hardcore group of campaigners for whom this is just one aspect of their protest, but I don’t imagine these are the majority when you create a tool that’s laughably simple to use.

    2) I’m sure there will be some people who hear about the campaign through this tool and get sucked into ‘proper’ campaigning and activism — great. I still think these people are the minority though, and that’s all I’m saying.

    3) A few people have said this and I think it’s the same argument that angry musicians use against critics who give them a bad review: “if you’re so good, why don’t you record a better album?” etc. I don’t think it’s a pre-requisite that before you can challenge someone else’s campaign approach, you have to have come up with a better one. I actually feel that this blog entry is my personal attempt to “put [my] energy into a campaign of [my] own preference” — I’m trying to highlight what I think was wrong with the tool so that next time it could be improved. I’m not an activist (or indeed a particularly politically active person) and the response to this entry has intrigued me: I’m definitely considering how exactly I’d go about campaigning against this bill in a more useful way, so I’ll take on board your point here. I still don’t buy the argument about it being a better use of my time, though. Don’t mistake this for mocking or disrupting the efforts of those protesting the bill – I’m making the point that sometimes the methods we use aren’t always the right ones.

    thank you!

  • Rhiannon Lockley

    Hi Matt
    In reply to 1 and 2. “All” was probably the wrong word for me to use, but I disagree with your general conclusion. A lot of the research into political involvement tends to be quite old and/or focused on how individuals become involved in extremist organisations (e.g. the far right). I appreciate the point about anecdata but bearing in mind the above points already made as provisos, the research does seem to say that the most effective form of political recruitment is graduated commitment – getting people to commit to minor undertakings is more likely to lead to them eventually being involved in bigger acts than trying to recruit them upfront to the bigger act itself (Milgram believed this on the basis of his landmark obedience studies, and other researchers have supported his views). It is also argued that getting people to invest in a cause, even in a small way, makes them feel more obliged towards carrying out other actions in favour of the same viewpoint because of the process of avoiding cognitive dissonance (Festinger – again very old research – needs updating, but I think the principle stands).

    In response to 3, I think timing and audience is key. I’m not saying there is no place to be reflective about campaigning, I’m just not sure this was the right way to do it. The people who created the original clicking issue have put in very long weeks in terms of political campaigning and the inevitable response to this post was going to be anger because of the tone. I disagree with you as to the effectiveness of the campaign but assuming I agreed I would argue that there is obviously a lot of determination and hard work on tap here – why not recruit it rather than dismissing it on the basis of tactics?

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