Polarisation and Activism
COVID-19 has put people power on steroids. It’s ushered in a new era of digital activism
Change.org is used around the world, but an analysis of the top 25 countries – including the UK – showed the number of people signing petitions between January–July 2020 represented an 81% increase in the same time period in 2019. Our platform also allows people to start petitions on issues that matter to them. That too had seen a stratospheric increase – nearly 80% more petitions were started. Nor was this just our existing users engaging more strongly. The number of people turning to change.org to grow support and influence increased by over a third.
At the heart of this growth, and our most successful campaigns, has been a focus on allowing people to tell their stories to change hearts and minds. Platforms like change.org enable people to highlight this. In the pandemic, this came into its own allowing people to find others in a similar situation to them and movements to build. Government policies, introduced at speed and sometimes poorly thought through, were having unintended effects. It left parents of perilously sick babies unable to sit by their bedside. Transport workers pleading for PPE. Or A-level students like Curtis in an utter mess as an algorithm delivered grades that were unrecognisable to them. By telling their stories people were able to connect with others – your identity and familiar lived experience are an intrinsic part of that. That’s a good thing, it enables them to bring about much needed change.
What these campaigners have in common is they were speaking up because their community was getting missed. This coalescing of groups who have the same story to tell can firmly push people into camps. And daily Government briefings addressing and attempting to support certain groups through the pandemic can exacerbate that. A potent reminder when you are missed out, fermenting feelings of being desperately unheard. A side effect is it ends up reinforcing divides between communities, who group together around their profession, gender, race or more to advocate for their rights. I worry that there is not enough attention going into how to prevent this polarisation happening or how we can bridge the divides it is fuelling.
Making people uncomfortable is often an essential part of what we do – it can be essential to bringing about change. Sometimes that means it is polarising, and I make no apology for that. Indeed providing a platform and support for less powerful groups is a large part of why change.org exists. This polarisation can shift people’s views – as MHP’s research shows – gay marriage now has broad support. But recent history shows us that rampant homophobia and discrimination meant for a long time that was not the case. While homophobia continues to exist, polarisation and protest has also ultimately induced changes in attitudes and legislation. Over time people have changed their mind. This example charts a way that people power and polarisation can make us uncomfortable, and bring us back together.