Crowdacting as a Spark for Climate Protection?
A Digitally Supported Concept for Collective Action
How many people does it take to avert the climate crisis? What each of us can do is obvious – but sole individual action is insufficient. More effective solutions are the conversion of economic systems – or policy changes. Urgent change is demanded of the latter by, e.g., Bits & Bäume. By putting pressure on politics, collective action allows citizens to tackle climate change beyond individual actions.
This contribution discusses crowdacting, as a little-known concept to organise collective actions, and how digital tools may support it.
Potentials and challenges of collective action
Collective action is a challenge but one of the most effective fields of action (Ostrom, 2010). Current psychological research encourages considering the environmental crisis
If people perceive themselves
as part of a group that is
successfully fighting climate change,
they will, in turn,
be more motivated to engage
in climate action.
as a collective crisis to be solved collectively (Fritsche et al., 2018). Such action can range from supporting an organisation and engaging in civic engagement to radical environmental activism or civil disobedience (Stern, 2000; Lee et al., 2014). When individuals see themselves as members of groups with pro-environmental goals, they also tend to view their behaviour as part of collective action (Barth et al. 2021). Thus, collective action allows individuals to escape feelings of helplessness (e.g., facing the severity of climate change) and to develop a sense of collective efficacy (Bamberg et al., 2015).
If people perceive themselves as part of a group that is successfully fighting climate change, they will, in turn, be more motivated to engage in climate action (Fritsche et al., 2018; Bamberg et al., 2015). Although climate movements such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion or Scientist Rebellion have brought together thousands of people in a short time, the number of activists is small related to the serious impacts of climate change (Furlong and Vignoles, 2021). This discrepancy can be explained by possible barriers that slow down activism, e.g.,
- the time needed for engagement,
- the financial costs of pre-paying expenses, renting, legal costs, etc., and
- the infrastructure needed to implement sustainable alternatives, e.g., public transport (Quimby and Angelique, 2011).
Further barriers include a group size too small (curbing feelings of efficacy) and limited opportunities for meeting places, communication, or to inform those not yet active but interested (Quimby and Angelique, 2011). These organisational factors matter, and they could be addressed well by human agency. One way to lower these barriers is through digital tool support for crowdacting.
Crowd-what? – crowdacting in a nutshell
Almost like crowdfunding - but with the intent of acting instead of giving money -, crowdacting is a digitally supported concept. It drives collective action by helping to organise people: Calls to action, including numbers of participants, are listed online and people can commit and join in.
One of the first crowdacting-like platforms was PledgeBank (2005–2015). Since 2016, an explanation video advertising CollAction has increased both the reach and the definitional scope of the crowdacting concept. For example, one could state an interest in joining a public protest but only if 2000 others also take part, or decide to only fund a group when at least 10 other people commit to a shared goal. Thus, a public protest can be expected to have a minimum size and an according impact and groups can be started with less risk of overwhelming work on too few shoulders.
‹X-tausend für Lützerath› – The protests in and around the German village Lützerath next to one of Europe’s biggest coal mines used a similar approach. Starting in summer 2022, the protestors collected online declarations of intent from more than 14,000 people aiming to hinder the destruction of Lützerath and prevent coal mining under the village. Within one day, about 35,000 citizens joined the biggest on-site demonstration to show their solidarity with the activists occupying the village since 2020.
Analysing the characteristics of crowdacting and thresholds
At the intersection of computer science and environmental psychology, a study (Parske, 2022) with 593 participants explored the dynamics of crowdacting. It showed that this form of organising collective action could, indeed, greatly reduce some psychological barriers stopping people from getting engaged. Crowdacting can help in finding fellow activists and provides a starting point to inform and act. Furthermore, it can also reduce the inhibition to engage or change habits as well as lessen worries about potential work overloads or time scarcity. In addition, different levels of citizen engagement, but also the political will, were found to be greatly improved.
Crowdacting can help
in finding fellow activists and
provides a starting point
to inform and act.
Parske (2022) analysed the effects of the necessary minimum number of participants (hereafter: threshold) as a condition for joining an action. Interested people prefer to join if a certain number of other interested people has been reached (conditional commitment threshold) rather than performing an action on their own or not at all. The greatest potential for activating inexperienced people was found for demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience, and citizens’ initiatives and petitions.
Especially for these forms of protest, multiple thresholds could lead to a cascading effect. The graphs in [Figure 1] represent the increase of participants between different thresholds per action form. The steeper a line between two points, the more meaningful the use of crowdacting with thresholds. For example, for demonstrations (blue graph line), there is a high increase from the second threshold (lower than 10) to the sixth threshold (100000 – 1 million). In comparison, active involvement in initiatives (green graph line) also starts with a steep curve but already breaks at the third threshold (10 – 100). The author concludes that crowdacting can be used to kick-start active involvement in small to medium-sized initiatives but can also initialise medium-sized to huge crowds for demonstrations.
Problem solver or trouble shooter?
Even if crowdacting seems to have numerous advantages, it also has its down-sides (summary in [Table 1]). The chance of there being a lot of people in an action may be countered by a de-motivation if there are not enough people and no action takes place because the threshold is not achieved. Also, sharing the same goal with others could result in an ‹us versus the rest› feeling or even blind following. Additionally, someone simply stating that they want to participate does not mean that they have to appear, so there should be a lure or reward for actually taking part.
However, raising public awareness through large collective actions and therefore having a greater sense of self-efficacy may result in self-reinforcing cascades of actions, also called ‹social tipping points›.
A digital tool to fuel crowdacting
Parske (2022) found 8 out of 10 people do not know about crowdacting. However, half of the study participants were interested in registering at an online crowdacting platform, one-third remained unsure, and only 1 in 7 was opposed to it. So, there is potential for starting a platform.
As platform features, experts mentioned the social components of interaction between users as well as rewards for performing actions and participating in the
development of the platform. Also, there should be an anchor in the real world so as not to exclude non-digitalised people. Measurement of the impact of actions, the trustworthiness of calls to action (e.g., by providing an FAQ list or a fact checker) and, of course, displaying the participant counts were named as key requirements. Overall, participants prefer to choose their thresholds and types of engagement from different options or even add a personal one, rather than deciding on a single given option. This preference should be respected on a platform. But just as with Social Media, negative effects may need to be considered. For example, how to make sure that the tool is not abused by undemocratic means or flooded by bots. The questions of ownership and financing the infrastructure must also be followed up.
And now what?
As crowdacting seems to offer unused potential for social change, further research on thresholds and practical - mainly technical - development is needed. Next steps besides networking could be designing prototypes and conducting field studies. Currently, several tools are under development, e.g., GetCourageNow (EN), CollAction (EN, NL), and Spartacus.app (EN), but none of them focus on using multiple thresholds – this gap still needs to be filled.
Eventually, the concept of crowdacting may help to overcome the climate crisis through countering the non-linearity of negative ecological tipping points with the non-linearity of positive social tipping points.
All in all, digitally supported crowdacting offers a promising approach to help engaged people build and visualise the political pressure needed for large-scale change, such as a sustainable digital transformation. Such change is urgently needed to keep our blue planet habitable for future generations.