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…


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


12