Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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…

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook


12