The general question this session aimed to discuss was ‘what is the most effective role for the internet to play in activism?’ – unfortunately the effectiveness of the internet was more predominantly denied rather than discussed.
I had hoped that with a varied panel of speakers such as those featured above there would be a nuanced and balanced discussion on the issue but unfortunately the conversation seemed to get stuck in the somewhat tired rhetoric of ‘offline versus online’ rather than how the two forms of activism can collaborate and benefit each other. Unfortunately the debate didn’t seem to recognise or at least fully vocalise the power of the internet, rather it was stuck in a rebuttal of its impact compared with more ‘sustainable’ offline methods of engagement.
Online activism and the somewhat damaging term of ‘clicktivism’ (implying a click is all it takes) has been criticised by many commentators following Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial article last August and in light of recent events in the Middle East being labeled (and accurately denied) as ‘twitter revolutions’. Unfortunately the responding outcries from e-activists and online campaigners have largely been of a defensive and justifying tone which perhaps has undermined rather than enriched this legitimate form of activism.
Online campaigning can take many forms, from signing a petition, emailing your local MP to donating to get an advert in the paper. Some might say that these are ‘just clicks’ and don’t indicate a ‘true’ sense of activism or involvement but what I see as one of the key appeals of online campaigning (at least personally) is that you can take action on issues you care about without necessarily feeling or being branded as a ‘radical activist’. Now that’s not saying there’s anything wrong with being a radical activist (we’d all be a lot worse off without those passionate individuals!) but being able to take part in campaigns you are interested in opens ‘activism’ up to a far wider audience. Protest and activism can take many forms so is it really justifiable to view their actions as any less legitimate just ‘cos they won’t get out in the streets and protest?
As David Babbs (38 Degrees) rightly pointed out during the debate; no online campaigners are claiming that the internet is the sole tool for creating change or being ‘one click away from saving the world’. David believes there’s no inherent superiority to any form of activism, that instead it depends on campaign, target, strategy and where you are in your life (both as an organisation and individual). He recognised that “the common factor of online and offline campaigning is power – if we as campaigners want enough power to make a difference we need to pool resources…the power of the internet is that it is a method to do this by facilitating collaboration”.
David also acknowledged that 38 Degrees (the UK’s largest online campaigning organisation) does not run purely online, instead it has been expanding its offline presence through ‘GetTogethers’ (a term coined by my previous organisation GetUp! Australia) which connect and mobilise locals to engage offline around the issues they explicitly care about online – thus enhancing the impact of both.
A particularly interesting viewpoint in light of recent events was that of Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim who gave a history of the revolution, “this was definitely not an internet revolution…it has been brewing for years…from all the previous mobilisation and the growing of the youth, labour and anti-capitalism movements over the last decade, then events in Tunisia that inspired Egypt that change was possible…it’s interesting that everyone is crediting the internet when the real battle was on the streets factories, workplaces”.
Gigi did however acknowledge that the internet had a role to play “the real role of the internet was helping to mobilise these movements. When we started planning for the January 25th Movement yes the web was useful for coordinating and mobilising…the most important role of the internet was to get info from on the ground out to the wider world and rest of Egypt to let them know what was happening, building awareness through the web to spread/receive information but at the end of the day it took the power of the people to make a difference”.
Analysis of the extent to which the Egyptian and Tunisian events were ‘twitter/facebook revolutions’ has been prolific in the media and online blogs but I think it’s important to note that this cannot be answered simply with an ‘all or nothing’ approach. It’s important that we understand the differences between a medium (either online or offline) being solely responsible rather than assisting in change.
I could give you countless examples of where offline campaigns have been enhanced and reinvigorated by online actions, just as online campaigns have benefited from on-the-ground support (if you’re interested then check out some of the Avaaz or GetUp! campaigns such as the recent ‘No Child in Detention‘ online-offline action).
Ultimately offline and online activism are two sides to the same coin and need to be seen as such, they go hand-in-hand and (when done well) can complement and enhance each others’ actions. But this need for a ‘PC’ approach to online activism needs to end – yes online can’t happen without the offline support but we cannot continue to deny that it does have an impact, so let’s recognise that.