Signing an online petition is one of the most popular forms of political participation. In Germany, around 37 % of citizens with internet access have signed an online petition in the last year (Roßteutscher et al. 2016). However, online petitions and other forms of activism through a mouse-click (clicktivism) are often criticized as a low quality form of participation or slacktivism. The paper argues instead that the current view on clicktivist campaigns is theoretically flawed. Evaluations in the debate over digital protest campaigns beg the question, since standards of formal political representation or traditional street protest are applied.
Against this backdrop, Saward’s methodology to study representative claims appears as a promising alternative. Digital protest campaigns in this framework appear as representational work. The paper analyses two major platforms for clicktivist campaigns, namely Campact and Change, and is based on interviews with CEOs as well as participants. With the help of Sawards view on representation the maker, subjects, referents, objects, and addressed audiences are identifying in selected clicktivist campaigns.
The representative claims analysis reveals two distinct patterns. Campact consists of a campaign team which exclusively fills the role of the maker of campaigns, while the related political subjects are often co-created through civil society coalitions (e.g. citizens against Glyphosate). Related referents and objects emerge from the discourses within the critical left-progressive milieu. From what we know about the represented and participating audiences, Campact performs as milieu-specific partisan, but cross-party voice.
Change, in contrast, allows every individual to take the lead as maker and subject of a campaign, but influences further on through media techniques and personal assistance which campaigns are exposed to larger, issue-specific filtered audiences. Change’s representational work aims at avoiding any sort of anti-democratic or hate-oriented campaigns, but in general Change doesn’t represent a milieu, but rather various issue-publics.
The paper concludes with three further reflections: First, Sawards openness for the representation by and of non-humans and future actors allows sketching out a theory of digital campaign representation. Non-human actors refer to elements of nature (such as tormented animals or endangered landscapes) which frequently call for support within these campaigns, but they also comprise media-technological “actants” that means figures, avatars, forms, filter mechanisms, surveys, repositories and identification signs. Second, in comparison to traditional understandings of formal representation, it is particularly striking that digital protest campaigns reveal an inverted sequence. Personal sentiments about pressing problems find constituencies and representatives, rather than the other way around. In this regard, these forms of representation exhibit individualized, participatory and direct-democratic character. Third, representative claims analysis shouldn’t be understood as a defense of clicktivism in general. In fact, it can help uncovering non-transparent and irresponsive campaigns. On Facebook for example more than half a million clicks in support for the introduction of the death penalty for child-abuse were collected in Germany, but few of the participants were aware that the “maker” and thus the “subject” of this campaign was a right-wing extremist party.