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Cyber-activism

Lorna Stephenson explores the perks and pitfalls of virtual organising

February 11, 2011
4 min read

At the time of the anti-capitalist protests of the late 1990s, it seemed that the internet could start a new era of cross-border activist organising. Ten years later, the recent student demonstrations and tax avoidance protests have shown the potential for social media such as Facebook and Twitter to facilitate mass action.

However, the internet can be a double‑edged sword when it comes to activism. It’s a cheap and immediate way to get your message out to a wide audience, there is a vast pool of information at your fingertips for research, and it allows communication with others all around the world. But it can also eat up valuable time, and creating an online presence for your campaign can be yet another challenge.

So how can an activist make best use of the web?

1 Be topical: be part of the online news revolution

One of the biggest advantages of the internet is its accessibility: a website costs little to start and has a global reach. This has loosened the mainstream media’s grip on news production, a hugely important development.

Whatever your campaign is about, respond to mainstream news stories in real time on your blog or website. Producing information that is topical and contributes to reasoned debate not only makes the most of the democratising potential of the internet but should also bring you more readers.

Regular email newsletters to a mailing list are a good idea, as is submitting your material to alternative news portals and aggregators to reach a wider audience.

2 Facebook, Twitter, et al

The use of social networking sites was, until recently, often derided as the ultimate in ‘slacktivism’. Facebook groups sprung up for every cause, with little or no real-life impact. They are, however, a useful tool in releasing bite-size chunks of information and directing people to updates on your website. The last few months have also seen them used effectively to organise direct action.

The UK Uncut tax avoidance protests, which target stores of corporate tax dodgers such as Vodafone and the Arcadia Group, are testament to the power of the ‘tweet’. The campaign, which tapped into pre-existing anger at the cuts and proposed a direct and replicable way to express it, quickly went viral.

According to Chris Tobin, a UK Uncut spokesperson, using social media such as Twitter gives the movement a horizontal structure and keeps it true to its grassroots: ‘It’s not about central groups any more, or hierarchies or committees. There is a genuine sense of democracy.’

Tobin says the model can be repeated readily. He offers the advice: ‘Remember, it’s not that different from a normal campaign. You have to do your research, choose targets carefully and keep your message clear. The most important thing is to keep it decentralised and allow people to take autonomous action.’

3 Be careful with the law

If you are going to organise a direct action, or use another confrontational or potentially illegal tactic, the internet may not be the place to plan or discuss it. ‘The internet creates an electronic trail,’ warns Jo Makepeace from the direct action newssheet SchNEWS. ‘Evidence from computers and email accounts has been used in various conspiracy trials.’

He thinks the younger generation in particular can be naïve about how discussing their involvement in demonstrations and other forms of direct action online could land them in hot water: ‘I’m convinced a lot of people are going to get in trouble from Facebook.’

4 Don’t be an armchair activist

Perhaps the biggest danger with the internet is that you can spend hours surfing and typing, and end up with little to show for your efforts. Updating social media platforms and checking emails too often can be a distraction from more substantial work.

Don’t campaign online at the expense of ‘real-world’ activism. When you email a PDF file of your newsletter, ask supporters to print off a few and leave it in their local social centre or bookshop. If a campaign you follow asks readers to write a letter to lobby on their issue, do it. Chase up those contacts you make online and collaborate face to face.

And if you find yourself, boggle-eyed at 2am, hitting refresh on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ to continue your argument with ‘nationalistdave’, it’s probably time to step away from the computer…

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