The push for social change is migrating online. But does it count? Kony 2012’s the latest example of this move.
An edited version of this article appeared in GQ Australia, June-July 2012
Last year was a big year for protesting. Dictatorships fell with dramatic intensity in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. In Russia, a disgruntled public railed against brazenly rigged parliamentary elections, while Occupiers in more than 82 countries pitched tents against rampant greed in the financial sector.
They’re the public face of protest, but you want to know where the real kick-arse, politician-engaging, change-making protest is at? Look to the folk operating behind the scenes to coordinate mass, online-based action: the armchair activists, clicktivists or, in their more extreme form, hacktivists. They’re not just the future of public protest; they already are public protest.
“Representational democracy is breaking down,” explains social media strategist Laurel Papworth. “We no longer need a representative to be our voice – if millions can vote for Australian Idol or Big Brother, then why can’t we vote on issues before parliament?
“The internet is a tool for communication; how it is used is up to people,” continues Papworth, who has 34,000 Twitter followers."Online communities are spaces for people to talk and organise. Every voice is heard equally, and meritocracy rules online: our voices cannot be ignored."
Modern-day protestors can still attract attention the old-fashioned way, of course. In Tunisia, a man set himself on fire. In Egypt, hundreds died. In Oakland, police pepper-sprayed nonviolent demonstrators. This is protest as spectacle and fits with historical precedents of what protest is and how protestors behave. It is an easy, linear media narrative for the rest of us to ogle from the comfort of our offices and armchairs.
But protest is a numbers game, and while the Arab Spring might have pulled people onto the streets in the tens of thousands, in Australia the assorted Occupys peaked with a few thousand bods. (When I checked out Occupy Melbourne last year, they were giving each other haircuts – hardly revolutionary activity. Granted, they’ve got the makings of a public nuisance, and I admire their gumption in holding a mirror to the face of Western democracy and reflecting back an image as distorted as Kyle Sandilands’ moral compass.)
The point is, in the 21st century this old school, real world, overly familiar form of public protest is just the tip of the iceberg, the metaphorical pus bursting from the pock-marked face of the global corporatocracy and dictatorships ruling our world. Scratch beneath the surface, and it quickly becomes apparent that the disgruntled groundswell festering behind the scenes far outnumbers those we see taking their frustration to the streets. The global network of the internet has changed the way in which our voices can be heard. Think of how quickly the name and crimes of an obscure African warlord, Joseph Kony, went viral.
GetUp! is a non-profit Australian member-based outfit with a stated aim of “building a progressive Australia and bringing participation back into democracy” since 2005. By coordinating large-scale email, internet and mainstream media actions it campaigns for social justice, economic parity and environmental sustainability. US-based Avaaz operates in a similar way, but on a gargantuan scale. With over 10 million members in 193 countries, if protest was a pie Avaaz would be eating nearly all of it.
Both organisations – and others like them – pull numbers that the Occupys of the world can only dream about. Back in November 2011, Avaaz gathered 468,000 signatures in just 72 hours for a petition against cluster bombs; 50 countries mobilised at an international conference to vote down American plans to keep them legal. In 2008, GetUp! motivated 100,000 Australians to help put the Government's proposed mandatory internet filter on the backburner, where it remains as a display of badly planned policy.
The people behind GetUp! and Avaaz trawl the moral purgatory of the internet for souls surfing the crossroad between apathy and activism, spectator and participant. They make it easy for “slacktivists” – people who aren’t prepared to paint banners, or march, or risk arrest – to participate by doing not very much: point, click, support.
Of course, not everyone’s convinced. Online debates have waged between activists enamoured by the speed and efficiency of the clicktavism model and those who think it encourages lazy, ineffective, low-risk armchair activism. Essentially, if there’s no risk – if you aren’t lining up and facing the police in their riot gear – does it count?
Well, yes it does, according to Ricken Patel, co-founder and director of Avaaz. “To reduce our actions down to clicking is silly,” Patel told The Times in February 2011. It’s what happens after the clicks – how we use that support – that’s what brings about incredible change.”
Papworth agrees. "The crowd is finding it's voice. It might be convenient to write off Avaaz and GetUp as armchair activists or 'gunnas' (gunna do something, one day), but the number of participants reveals we are not alone in our unhappiness with the status quo, and shows we can create a citizen lobby group by using online community tools."
"After all, what's the difference between an armchair activist group or a lobby group?" the social media expert asks. "Perceived power. You can ignore the rabble... until you can't."
Since 2011, Avaaz has claimed significant victories following pressure it has applied. Formula 1 withdrew last year from revving up in human-rights-violating Bahrain, and a civilian massacre during the Libyan uprising was stopped by pushing the UN Security Council to create a no-fly zone.
They’re effective precisely because they enable the slacktivists to weigh in, as numbers count except in the most extreme cases, like the Iraq war. They’re effective because they engage politicians and power brokers in ways they respect and relate to; project managing specific, targeted, large-scale lobbying, petition and advertising campaigns, and presenting them through sanctioned channels of and communication and business, and because they meet and communicate with decision makers on their own turf.
Of course the two – online and real world protest – are not separate. Print and online anti-consumer outfit Adbusters kick-started Occupy Wall Street. Street protestors everywhere use social media to spread the word about their actions and experiences in the world, and the armchair activists do leave their offices to engage the real world: witness Avaaz’s Patel presenting a 360,000 strong petition in favour of ending the global food crisis to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Rome in late 2009 at an emergency food summit. Donor governments pledged billions in extra aid.
And then there are the hacktivists, like Anonymous – a decentralised collective of hackers and activists whose methods are illegal and hit ‘em where it hurts. Anonymous have initiated ball-breaking attacks on the likes of Mastercard (taking their website down for two days back in December 2010) and the New York Stock Exchange (forcing them offline in October 2011), and hit the Department of Justice and FBI websites following the arrest of people associated with file-sharing site Megaupload
Granted, if enough people get up and get involved, street protest works. But it’s no longer the only means of taking the power back. Like most of public life in modern democracies, protest has moved from street to screen and gone online. Occupy that.