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Online Activism And Political Involvement

It is easy to become caught up with the online world. There is a certain wonder with meeting people on the other side of the world with similar interests, to share stories, to swap tips ... and to argue incessantly about some of the most seemingly trivial things; I swear I've seen a knitting flamewar. Such discussions can amaze observers who do not have those interests and compare very poorly with the necessity of involvement in politics; "... the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule." (Plato, The Republic, Book I, 347-C). Politics however, like any other interest, is subject to such debates and distractions. For someone who wants to be a serious political activist, to make real changes in the world, this is a problem. The following are some suggestions on how to manage online activism in a manner that furthers actual social change.

1. Extend Real-World Activism With ICT

The purpose of political activism is to successfully introduce legal change and public awareness. This can be assisted by information and communications technology. Information technology is an extremely effective means to record, store, search and distribute information. Communications technology allow for asynchronous as well as synchronous two-way information flow whilst at the same time independent of spatial constraints. These are exceptional tools to aid one in promoting their cause to public officials and interested members of the public. Of course, there are other tools that one can use for direct political effect such as denial of service attacks and web vandalism. It must be pointed out that these have limited effect beyond the media interest that they generate.

Winning an argument on the Internet is not going to make any substantive difference to the laws that affect us. Regardless of whether one advocates a model of radical, reforming, conservative or even reactionary approaches to society, these are to be implemented in the practice of life and in the system's institutions. Thus it is imperative that everyone who uses ICT to further political causes should also embody themselves in the real political struggle, whether that be through public protest, political parties, meeting with officials, and so forth. Whilst there is still a distinction between flesh-and-blood human beings and the electronic communications matrix, "pressing the flesh" remains the priority whilst an exclusive emphasis on the online world is a form of political retreatism.

2. Choose Your Demographics

The reality of politics is that most people want to know how a current situation or proposed change will affect them, and they can be very selfish in their assessment of the situation. When a boatload of asylum seekers reach Australia, only a minority are concerned with what they are fleeing from. Most can only see problems; the prospect of cultural and religious differences, employment and housing issues, and so forth. The situation has not been helped by certain politicians Allaying such people of their fears, explaining to them the circumstances of the asylum seekers and so forth is something that can be clearly assisted with ICT - but appropriately.

Do not, for example, advertise local meetings to global mailing lists, despite the relative ease in doing so. Do not spam communities with your political organisation or issue - and most certainly, do not spam communities that have nothing at all to do with the topic or conversation thread.

Targeting use of ICT for political causes can be extremely effective. The Zapatista movement combined targeted information releases with substantive political action, ensuring that many in the world were aware of their actions and the reasons for their actions before it was reported by the mass media, a model which continues to this day with the Green movement in Iran.

3. Target Your Energy

We all have a finite amount of energy and time in a day, and the Internet is full of distractions, some of which themselves can even distract you from your distractions. It may even become common at the end of the day for a person to think to themselves "what did I do today apart from plough my fields in Farmville, and go up a level in World of Warcraft?" Such a person, slightly annoyed at themselves for letting these entertaining pastimes consume too much of the precious temporal commodity, may decide to direct more of their time towards getting schooled in political matters. This is generally a good pastime - but it can be even made even more effective.

Your online political energy should be directed in proportion to your interests, the effect of the proposed change or status quo, and your capacity to influence. For example, late last year the Ugandan government proposed a reprehensible anti-homosexuality bill, which would have included the death penalty for 'previous offenders', those who engaged with same-sex acts with people under 18, and those who are HIV+. Anyone with an interest in universal and human rights should be concerned about such a bill. It is quite clear that it has a very serious effect on the lives of those accused of same-sex acts or relations. But what can a person, far from Uganda, actually do about it?

The wrong thing for a political activist to do would be to heavily tap into the Internet discussion forums in Uganda itself on the matter and gain an enormous level of expertise in the intricacies of the bill. What possible use does such knowledge and participation have? The right thing to do is to improve local awareness against the topic, especially when these are matched by direct and indirect political protest, such as campaigns to cut financial aid to such a vile regime, or petitions to contact local representatives to demand that they express their disapproval. Such actions do have an effect as the Ugandan President Museveni noted with frustration. Widespread international solidarity has enormous morale-boosting effects for those in the affected jurisdiction.

4. Give Money

For a very long time political activists of a more 'common person' persuasion found themselves seriously out-gunned when it came to fundraising. The often insurmountable challenge of taking on the big corporations and their well-connected network of professional lobbyists meant that many a campaign was lost in the past that probably could have been won - if the right technologies were available at the time. Howard Dean exemplified and really established the new model when Dick Cheney described a $2,000 per seat luncheon with George W. Bush. In contrast Dean used the Internet to invite people over "for [a virtual] lunch" and, in the process, raised just as much money. What Dean lacked in well-heeled individuals, he made up in a less onerous per capita donation in greater numbers, and with greater dispersion. As Dean correctly said "the Internet isn't magic, it's just a tool that can be used to do things differently" - and the capacity to transfer funds from one bank account to another is indeed, one of those 'things'.

For many people, after an exhausting day's work, political activism is the last thing on their minds. Some quality time with their family and friends is perhaps a little higher on the agenda. Personally, I believe that everyone should spend an hour a day in political activity of some sort - and if they can't do it directly for a variety of reasons, then do it indirectly. I can't be present with Greenpeace trying to stop Japanese whalers. I can't be with Amnesty International trying to negotiate the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. I can't be with Médecins Sans Frontières carrying medical supplies into an emergency medical tent in Sudan. But I can donate an hour's wages per day to help pay for the expenses for the people who do engage in those activities - and often it is more efficient and effective to do so.

5. Do Not Feed The Trolls

The Internet is truly a diverse place, indeed far more diverse than what a real social world often would be, because "nobody knows that you're a dog". The opportunity for grade-A kooks to visit 'blogs and forums and espouse their strange theories and values to a mass audience, rather than mumbling to themselves in a disheveled trench-coat must be one of the great liberating wonders of our age. Aside from potential anonymity of personal characteristics, the Internet is a forum that has a very different communication experience - on of distance, of dropping social mores and generally standards of behaviour - leading to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

As a result, one must train oneself to be selective in how they communicate online and with whom. There are people who are genuinely interested in a political cause that you raise, who have serious and useful questions about a position you espouse. They may be able to convince you, through the strength of their argument alone, that a position that you hold is incorrect or needs to be modified, which is a real benefit to one's own political reasoning. You may even be able to gain a long-term ally through such a process, an invaluable resource in itself - As Jurgen Habermas once put it "Communicative action is a switching station for the energies of social solidarity". But these require a prior intentionality on participants to engage in discourse ethics. Most people involved in online discussions, alas, are not interested in such things. When encountering individuals who want to argue, to be snide, abusive and so forth, let them pretend that they've had their victory - as it is obviously very important to them. For your own peace of mind and political effectiveness, do not feed the trolls.

Posted simultaneously to Talk_Politics on Livejournal

Commenting on this Page will be automatically closed on June 24, 2010.


The point 5 is an accurate description of the things, how they are. My feeling is also that anonymity is the problem. Why do people place anonymous comments on online newspaper articles? They place their opinions like hidden snipers the bullets. But I'm not really sure about whether the anonymity is always bad. In today's political system, anonymity saves the voters from being punished or bought. Do we need anonymity at all? I have still no answer. (My name is Rustam Tagiew. ;) )

Anonymity, if conducted correctly, provides an excellent opportunity for whistle-blowers of all sorts. However in the overwhelming majority of cases is used not for such a politically emancipatory effect, but rather as an opportunity to engage in trolling, abuse etc.