Spitfire Strategies

The Depth of Clicktivism

Net neutrality faces off with big data

Thanks to big data and analytics, people can see exactly who’s winning and who’s losing the public debate over net neutrality. A study recently released by the Sunlight Foundation found that of the 1M+ public comments on net neutrality submitted to the Federal Communications Commission,  99 percent supported net neutrality and just one percent opposed it. One percent!

Using analytics, people can also see which groups’ actions generated the most comments. As detailed feedback numbers become more common, nonprofits could be judged by their clicktivism rates.

Think of it as big data and open government, meets Charity Navigator and Guidestar.


The Sunlight Foundation analysis breaks down the notion that clicktivism is the shallowest form of issue engagement—a concern for progressives who muster a million signatures only to have them trashed by Congress in a keystroke.

In fact,  petition signers in the study were deeply engaged. The report showed that the net neutrality comments were 60 percent form-generated, a rate far lower than similar mobilizations which are often  75-90 percent form-generated. But even within the form-generated comments, Sunlight found that “many submitters take the opportunity to personalize their comment beyond what was supplied by the campaign’s template language.” Signers weren’t just following like zombies.

QuidIn August, the Knight Foundation and Quid research released a similar study which showed that while the media narrative was focused on corporate control and Washington corruption, commenters to the FCC wrote about fairness, diversity of public voices and what it means to be American. Public Knowledge’s SVP Harold Feld commented that it showed “people are engaged on this issue to a remarkable degree, and are drawing their own conclusions about it rather than echoing talking points — even talking points from trusted sources.”


The Sunlight report shows that the number of comments brought to the FCC by the Tea Party pale in comparison to the comments brought by progressive groups. It’s a huge win for net neutrality organizers, and it  should make it easier for FCC decision makers to justify strong action towards protecting net neutrality.

But nonprofits should also be concerned about how decision makers, donors or activists might also use this data to evaluate their efforts.

These numbers do paint a picture for evaluators. But they only tell part of the story. It is clear that, for example, EFF generated more comments than Avaaz. What isn’t clear is  the level of time and resources each group invested in the effort: what if one group worked on the issue for a week, and the other for a year? Will that data show up in a Charity Navigator rating about the effectiveness of the two groups, or be the lynchpin of a foundation grant decision? What about groups who work under a jointly branded campaign? Will their individual efforts be undervalued by an algorithm? And what will happen to corporate campaigns where data is more privately held? 


The greatest danger of big data isn’t in the data itself. It’s in how it’s going to be interpreted and used. Just ask the teenage Target customer whose sales history data triggered targeted advertising that exposed her pregnancy to her father.

This inevitable marriage of big data and activism will come with advantages and disadvantages for digital campaigners and nonprofits. We know clicktivism can represent the kind of deep engagement we need from grassroots activists, which is an important development. Now, nonprofits need to make sure evaluation techniques become equally clear and useful.

This piece originally appeared as an article at epolitics.com

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