Mal Fletcher
Do Online Protests Work? Reflecting on Jeremy Clarkson Saga

This morning, The Telegraph reported that the BBC has decided to sack TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson, because of an altercation between him and a producer on the Top Gear programme.

The decision has ramifications beyond the survival of the global Top Gear brand. For one thing, it raises questions about the efficacy of large online protests and petitions.

A plethora of social media platforms have turned opinion-sharing into a compulsion for many people. Yet online public petitions – even well subscribed ones – may carry far less weight than we’d like to believe.

In the past couple of weeks, more than one million people signed a petition calling for Clarkson’s return to what is arguably the most popular car programme ever devised for TV, anywhere.

More than 350 million viewers tuned in worldwide to Top Gear, which was fronted by Clarkson and is to date BBC Worldwide’s biggest money spinner.

Despite a following that other BBC presenters and their producers can only dream about, Clarkson declared earlier this week that protests like the one designed to save his job never work.

In two weekend newspaper columns, he wrote that the world is run by ‘whales’, while most people are merely ‘plankton’, or potential whale food. Whales, he said, pay scant attention to the smaller creatures of the sea no matter how many of them are flapping about.

This was perhaps discouraging news for Guido Fawkes, the organisers of last week’s petition, which was spectacularly delivered to 10 Downing Street in a tank.

There is, of course, ample evidence that, under certain circumstances petitions and similar forms of online protest do achieve positive results. In 2012, a 14-year-old girl set up a campaign to get Seventeen, one of America’s leading teen magazines, to stop using photo-shopped or airbrushed images of its models. Her petition gathered more than 80,000 signatures and forced the magazine to change its approach.

Closer to home, an 18-year-old woman in Stoke-on-Trent launched the #NoMakeUpSelfie campaign, which saw thousands of women, including celebrities, posting photos of themselves without makeup. In one week, the campaign raised more than £8 million for cancer research.

These and other examples suggest that online protests and campaigns can work if they fulfil certain conditions.

The first is a clearly defined and transmitted goal. People must know what measurable change – as opposed to vague, emotional pleas – they’re being asked to support.

The goal must also be straightforward enough to be easily communicable across viral social media networks. Basically, if the goal can’t be summed up in 100-120 eye-catching, heart-tugging characters on Twitter – that is, allowing enough space for it to be retweeted – it won’t gain much traction.

The issue must also be timely. It needs to be a part of the news cycle for longer than a day or two before a petition is launched, so that the narrative already connects with people on an emotional level.

The petition must then be released into the public domain at a time when the people’s attention to the subject is peaking. This level of timing is tricky and achieving it is often more a case of blind luck than deliberate strategy.

There’s no use pretending that in the digital revolution human emotions count for less than they did in the age of analogue. In fact, the very opposite may well be true. Without emotion, there is no change. Think back to the tragedy of 9/11. It wasn’t the work of terrorists per se that kept entire American airlines grounded for two or three months following the World Trade Centre attacks.

That was the result of human emotion. The future is shaped not primarily by technologies or events, but by how we choose to engage with technologies and events. Our choices are heavily influenced by feelings, whether we’re conscious of them or not.

Finally, to have any chance of success, public protests through petitions and the like must be supported by a wide range of people. A petition can succeed with support from a very narrow demographic, but this mainly happens within the narrow world of product marketing, where goods are designed with niche markets in mind.

Outside of marketing-world, demographics count for less. Leaders of institutions such as governments and public bodies like the BBC are more likely to take note if backing comes from a broad cross-section of the community.

For all its good intentions, it seems the Clarkson petition, for all the media coverage it generated, didn’t tick quite enough of these boxes. Yet in spite of its failure, people will continue to sign petitions for generations to come.

This is because online protests feed into two very human needs. They speak first of all to our need for social contact. The more we engage with high tech, the more we need high touch.

Despite the rapid growth of social media over the past few years, more than 62 million Americans say they are socially isolated and unhappy about it. In the UK, one third of the adult population lives alone and the average Brit claims to have just four ‘real friends’ but 150 Facebook friends.

For all our digital connectedness, we seem in some ways to be as isolated as ever .

In her book The Village Effect, psychologist Susan Pinker shows how human lifespan can be extended when people live in close-knit, village-like communities of familiar people. Studies have proven that quality social connections can keep people alive.

Rapid urbanisation and cheap travel, which lead to high mobility and transient populations, are prone to drain our pool of proximate friends. In the face of this, online petitions seem to offer opportunities to cluster, around a cause.

In most cases, this digital ‘gathering’ is only metaphorical; it provides an illusion of reliable human contact where no real depth of relationship exists. The exception to this might be when some form of flash-mobbing results – that is, where the cyber-tribe is transformed into a real-tribe.

If people come together in physical space to reinforce their support for an online protest, the impact is going to be greatly enhanced – for them as individuals and for the campaign they’re waging.

Whether or not there is a physical event attached to a digital protest, the promise of connection, even if only in cyberspace, is attractive.

Petitioning also feeds into our desire to be more than consumers. Studies suggest that the recent recession led many of us to re-think our core values, especially when it comes to concepts like private ownership and altruism.

The sharing economy has experienced sharp growth in recent years, because of both rapid urbanisation and this re-thinking of priorities. In major urban centres, it is not unusual to be able to share ownership of everything from bicycles – for example, Boris bikes – to motor scooters, cars, apartments and rooms with apartments.

Altruistic activity also grew during the recession. In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, Britain’s Red Nose Charity raised a record amount for worthy causes. Why? Because when material security begins to slide in a community, moral altruism reaches for the sky.

In times of sudden, relative need, people cannot define themselves by their jobs, mortgages or savings accounts. These things are recognised as transient. People then seek out other ways to define themselves and to declare their values to the world. Altruistic activities are a part of this.

Once the worst of the recession was over, some of the support for charities slipped away, but many people wanted to retain some of their new-found taste for micro-activism, often combining it with consumer activities. Buying a free-trade cup of coffee is a form of micro-activism. A small consumer purchase is seen to be enhanced and even ennobled by the fact that it also supports the common good, somewhere in the world.

Petitions are often seen as a form of micro-activism, where individuals make a small commitment to what potentially becomes a very large collectiveenterprise.

Micro-volunteering is another expression of the same ethic. Google’s reCaptcha project is a great example of the potential of micro-volunteering. Among other things, it digitises analogue books one letter at a time.

Every time we are asked to type a string of distorted text when completing an online form, we take part in reCaptcha. In typing the letters, we each join the 750 million people globally who are helping to digitise 100 millions words per day and 2.5 million books annually.

There’s a flip side to the micro-volunteer and micro-activism coin, though. Some people will feel that having signed a petition they’ve made a bigger contribution to a cause than they actually have.

In reality, petitions are a form of activism-light. If you’re really serious about supporting a particular change, you’ll probably feel you want to get involved in some more rubber-hits-the-road way, perhaps by joining or regularly supporting a campaign group.

As the Top Gear protest reflects, petitions may be useful but even the most well supported are not guaranteed of success. This may be in part because there are just so many petitions going around.

Or it might just be that Jeremy Clarkson was right: once whales, the ruling elites of the seas, make up their minds to feast, they pay scant attention to noisy protests from plankton.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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