Can Internet technology still revolutionize activism?

One of the biggest promises of the Internet was the transformation of political activism. No longer would change come about solely through the actions of large organizations, claimed the Web's early enthusiasts. Now, they claimed, individuals could rouse the concern of their fellow citizens for a particular cause through Web sites, e-mail, and online petitions. Those who normally shunned demonstrations and limited their participation in the public sphere could be contacted personally in their e-mail box, and all that would be necessary for them to do to show their support would be to click a button or fill in a field. Soon, pundits predicted, there would be a revolution in grassroots participation in the political process.

Now, several years after these enthusiastic pronouncements, there has been a reconsideration of the effectiveness of online activism. Although the World Wide Web is still in its infancy, sufficient time has passed for those involved in electronic activism to reflect upon the basic questions underlying their work: Has the Internet really increased participation in the political process? Have mass e-mailings really had a significant impact on decision-makers? Will the Internet decrease the importance of affiliation with parties and organizations and increase the impact of the individual?

E-mail petitions

E-mail petitions have been repeatedly skewered for their impracticality. Superficially, they seem to be an improvement on traditional petitions that are taken from door to door or signed in a public square, since they can reach exponentially more people with much less effort.

However, many have pointed out that the e-mail petition is flawed by its very design. Each person who signs the petition will be adding his or her name to a list of names that will then be presumably forwarded to several friends or acquaintances. Each of those recipients will then add their names to the list and mail them out to others. The result will be that, in fact, the original e-mail petition will actually be split into several lists, which will then split into even more lists. Were the originator of the petition then to try to count the number of people who signed the original list, he or she would have to sift through potentially thousands of duplicate signatures.

E-mail petitions inherently carry other problems that jeopardize their value. The opportunity for forgery looms large; it is very easy to cut and paste names from into an e-mail petition. Additionally, affixing one's name to an e-mail petition requires much less effort and allows for much more anonymity than signing a real petition. For these reasons, politicians are inclined to treat the dedication and commitment?as well as the very existence?of the signers as dubious.
Well-intentioned protest e-mail may have inadvertently had the opposite effect.

A recent example of the fallibility of e-mail petitions is that of a recent electronic campaign to save Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman condemned to death by stoning for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. An e-mail petition falsely bearing the logo of Amnesty International was disseminated to protest the execution of Lawal, erroneously claiming that it was to occur on June 3. The well-intentioned wave of e-mail responses?which ranged from Nottingham, England, to Beirut, Lebanon, to Washington D.C.?alarmed the Nigerian-based women rights groups most directly involved with the aspects of Lawal's case. Their concern was that these petitions would hasten Lawal's execution, as those subscribing to the implementation of Sharia law in this matter would fear that foreign, non-Muslim supporters of Lawal were about to intervene and thus take pre-emptive action.

A number of scholars of electronic activism, such as author Howard Rheingold, who discusses how communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation in his recent book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, are duly skeptical of such e-mail petitions.

"[They are] either urban legends or ineffectual," said Rheingold in an e-mail interview with the Digital Freedom Network.

"Does anybody who actually works with human rights issues believe that an e-mail petition would have changed the Taliban's treatment of women? They can be effective only if they include the real names and addresses of the petitioners and are delivered by an effective lobbying organization. Even more effective are electronic calls to action that enable people to call or write their Congressional representatives about specific legislation."

A study by OMB Watch, a nonprofit group focusing on activities at the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB), concurs with Rheingold's observation. "Most [US] Congressional offices give the most weight to personal letters, followed by [in descending order of priority] personal visits, telephone calls, faxes, personal e-mails, paper petitions, form letters, postcards and form e-mail."

Web-based petitions

Web-based petitions have received a somewhat more favorable evaluation. Petitions posted on a Web site allow the reader more time to absorb the information and issues. There is also more initiative involved, since the signer actively logs onto the site rather than passively receiving an e-mail in his inbox. As a result, Web-based petitions are utilized more in the activist world.
An online petition "does get addressed" in one US senator's office, but a personal letter "is more meaningful."

Web sites like e.thePeople, ThePetitionSite, and PetitionOnline offer the ability for activists to post a petition and then have others come to the site to sign it. According to the "Five Myths of Online Activism" report on the e.thePeople Web site, a poll of petition-writers revealed that 24 percent of petitions received some sort of response. "While most letter- and petition-writers report no tangible results," the report states, "to say that they are never successful is an overstatement."

In a similar vein, US Senator Dianne Feinstein's communications director said in a recent article that any online petition sent to Senator Feinstein "does get addressed," while admitting that a personal letter is "more meaningful."

The Internet as a tool for mobilization

If online and e-mail petitions boast only a modest success rate, it appears that their great contribution to electronic activism is their capacity for mobilization. Numerous examples abound of the Internet's surprising ability to "get the word out" of dates and times of organized protests, demonstrations, and coordinated activities.

Groups like Stand for Children rely upon the Internet to organize protests and demonstrations of solidarity. Stand for Children organized a variety of diverse activities to draw attention to a dearth of proper health insurance for children in the United States. These activities included planting flowers in Boise, Idaho, singing songs on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol, and ringing church bells at a designated time throughout Grass Valley, California.

As these activities were spread out over the entire country, it was imperative to find a way of unifying and coordinating them so as to broadcast a central message. For this purpose, the Internet was used as a tool to give those involved in each event a sense of being part of the larger whole.

"The Internet is the glue that [held] these local events together," said Jonah Edelman, executive director of Stand for Children, in an article discussing the mass demonstration.

And yet, for all such examples of successful use of the Internet for mobilization, there are others who still believe in an even more ambitious role for the Internet in political activism.

Virtual sit-ins

In recent years, activists have emulated the protests of the 1960s by participating in "virtual sit-ins." Here, people are notified via e-mail to boycott a particular Web site or, more frequently, to disable it by flooding it with e-mail messages.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) is a New York-based group whose virtual sit-ins have been effective, as well as controversial, tools of electronic protest. EDT?which describes itself as "working at the intersections of radical politics, recombinant and performance art, and computer software design"?makes available to the public FloodNet, software used to flood and block an opponent's Web site. FloodNet operates by sending an automatic reload request every few seconds to the targeted Web site. With thousands of such requests, that Web site is overloaded for the day and access to it is blocked.

EDT has used FloodNet in various campaigns, including a 1998 virtual sit-in in support of the Mexican Zapatista rebels at the Web sites of the Pentagon, the Federal Communications Commission, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and the School of the Americas. More recently, EDT organized a protest against the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January, 2002. One hundred and sixty thousand people downloaded FloodNet from the EDT Web site and then went online to deluge the WEF Web site with hits. After only a few hours, the site collapsed and remained down for the rest of the week.

Roberto Dominguez, co-founder of EDT, has maintained that the goal of his organization is not to shut down a Web site?which can be construed as hacking and therefore punishable by law?but rather "to disturb."

EDT's actions have drawn criticism, however, even from those in the activist and hacker communities. Some have blasted EDT's radical methods as stifling free speech, while others have questioned what message disabling a site sends to a public that would have no idea why a particular site was disabled.

A case study in e-activism: Woomera2002

However, the right combination of innovative Internet technology and careful on-line and off-line coordination can make a powerful statement and effect great change.

One noted example is Woomera2002.

On March 28, 2002, over 1,000 activists converged on a wind-swept patch of the Australian desert outside the Woomera Refugee Camp. They had come from throughout Australia as well as Japan and England to protest the government's harsh confinement of asylum seekers who had arrived on Australia's shores without proper documentation. In previous months, the conditions for those incarcerated at Woomera?many of them of Afghani descent fleeing the chaos of their homeland?had become markedly worse: prisoners had sewn their lips together in hunger strikes and had thrown themselves in desperation upon razor wire-topped fences.

Activists encamped in the Outback for days, drawing media attention as they engaged in loud demonstrations and tore down fences of the detention center, helping several dozen refugees escape. While escapees were recaptured, the world's attention upon Australia's treatment of refugees remained steady in the months following Woomera2002. In April, the Woomera Detention Centre was permanently closed, even though Australian Minister of Immigration Paul Ruddock claimed that his decision to close the facility was of a purely managerial nature, made possible by lower numbers of detainees.

What was unique about Woomera2002 was not that its goal of stopping the abuse at the Woomera Detention Center was achieved, but rather that its coordinators made particularly effective use of Internet technology to arrange the event and to publicize it.

Various groups had electronically networked with each other prior to the event to arrange to meet in the desert near the detention center. As the event got underway, computers were rigged up in a truck at the protest camp and an Independent Media Centre, which acted as a clearinghouse of articles, photos, and opinions, was quickly constructed. First hand accounts, links to mainstream news, transcripts of audio links and analysis were posted unaltered by editors or spin-doctors.

"You didn't have to wait for the seven o'clock news and wait for it to go through all the corporate filters," recalled one participant.

Coordinators also employed innovative Internet technology to increase world attention on the event. The Phone Indymedia Patch System (PIMP) allowed people to use a telephone to leave voice messages in the form of an MP3 file on the Indymedia site. Activists in Woomera2002 along with prisoners from behind the detention center's walls and escapees left messages using PIMP on the indymedia site. Additionally, the online Virtual People Smuggler (VPS) allowed supporters who were unable to attend Woomera2002 to send messages of solidarity to the protestors. Throughout Woomera2002, the Indymedia site allowed those logging in to get an immediate glimpse of what was transpiring "on the ground," which was glaringly different from the sensationalized mainstream news reports of the event.

Woomera2002 was an example of a successful online campaign. It used innovative Internet technology to greatly amplify the effects of the protest and involve people internationally. Its broadcasting was fast and fluid, favoring large quantities of uncensored information produced by a large group of people rather than carefully constructed news feeds written by a select few. And, perhaps most importantly, all the online activity was simultaneously mirrored by real-world, grassroots protests with concrete results.

Real world first, then virtual

"The personal effect will always be the strongest."

- Hillary Naylor

Hillary Naylor is unequivocal that this last point is the key to successful Internet activism. As Education Program Manager at CompuMentor, an organization that advises NGOs on how to effectively use technology, as well as online volunteer network coordinator at Amnesty International, Naylor has been involved with a number of Internet-based activist campaigns. From her experience, Naylor writes that "online advocacy (e-mails, petitions,etc.) can only be an adjunct to the off-line strategies (letter writing, visits, town halls, newspaper editorials, etc.)."

In an interview with the Digital Freedom Network, Naylor stressed the necessity of personal contact. She pointed out that for a while now, politicians have been unresponsive to e-mails that come en masse with the same subject heading. "It is important that people personalize the subject heading of their e-mail," Naylor said. "[But] if you ask people to send e-mail, you should also arrange for them to visit the congressperson's office."

In the same vein, Naylor rejects the idea that e-mail campaigns will become more powerful as more business is done electronically.

"The personal effect will always be the strongest," she noted.

Kevin Reid echoes Naylor's viewpoint. As online organizer for Amnesty International, Reid has overseen many of Amnesty's online campaigns. Recent successes include Amnesty's "Clean Diamond" campaign, where concerned individuals were asked to forward an animated Flash cartoon that depicted the path of a diamond from the time it is mined by abused and exploited workers in Sierra Leone to the time it reaches the ring finger of an American bride-to-be. The cartoon ends with a message urging the viewer to writer his or her member of Congress to support legislation that bans the sale of diamonds that were mined under such brutal conditions and which produce revenue for armies to purchase weapons to wage war against civilians and commit egregious human rights abuses, including rape, amputation and the use of child soldiers.

The cartoon passed through thousands of e-mail boxes, resulting in e-mails, letters, and calls. In April, the Clean Diamond Trade Act passed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives, ensuring that diamonds entering America come from legal sources.

Yet for all such examples of Amnesty's successful use of the Internet in their campaigns, Reid also maintains that "e-mails are only a first step."

"We want people to move beyond that," he told DFN. "We want people to get out and join real groups where they live and join with others who are also interested in campaigning for the cause in which they are interested. We don't want armchair activists."

Sociologists have pointed out that only very rarely can individuals be mobilized through "moral shock," an effect aimed for by action alerts, electronic petitions, and virtual sit-ins. Rather, successful activist campaign which employ Internet technology build upon pre-existing networks which were first built from face-to-face interactions. To reach a high degree of success, today's political activism must artfully blend Internet technology with the spark of engagement produced by a human encounter.

(May 15, 2003)