26 January 2010

Haiti, Canadian proragation and slacktivists: when online activism works

Demonstrators in downtown Toronto last Saturday

Torontonians went out in droves and marched against Harper's move to suspend Parliament yet again until March. I would probably not have heard about the rally had it not been for Facebook. My friends across the country marched and so did I. Toronto media reported the event in a somewhat muted and modest fashion. I'm glad we all took pictures, shot video and were able to share the magnitude of the event online.

The rally brought to mind a radio interview I heard last December on BBC's Start the Week. Evgeny Morozov, appropriately East-European and devoid of any hint of Christmas cheer, waxed lyrical about how the internet helped dictatorship spy on activists and how kids today joined groups all self-congratulatory about doing their part, a phenomenom known as slacktivism.

Morozov has an article in Prospect Magazine in which he explains why in 2007 he quit his job working for "western-funded internet projects in the former Soviet Union". Morozov takes the examples of Belarus and Iran as instances where activists use of the internet resulted in governmental backlash.

It's true that in the aftermath of the Iran election, one saw more tweets telling people to shut up about times and locations of demos than tweets about the demos themselves. The problem with using Twitter to reach everybody is that it will reach everybody, including your tyrants.

And Morozov is also right when he says that optimism regarding the use of internet as an insurrectionist move against totalitarianism is completely overblown. The idea that tweeting in itself will bring about real change is ludicrous, but too many politicians deal in vagueness and the idea that the internet can free peoples (clean, cheap, no army) is too a seductive idea not to spin it.

Also, insurrection cuts both ways. Muslim fundamentalists have use the internet not only to communicate covertly, but to publicise their extreme views.

Morozov also mentions a study revealing that 70% of the traffic over bluetooth between Saudi teenagers was pornographic. He posits that the most popular aspects of the internet, gossip and pornography — are great depoliticising forces. Whilst gossip has always been used for better and for worse as a normative force to influence specific behaviour, there is no way of getting around the depoliticising force of pornography.

This, of course, shouldn't be surprising. White supremacists have been on the internet since its conception. If the internet makes it easier for good people to get together, it stands to reason it will do the same for bad people as well. It's also enabled totalitarian regimes to promote their own agenda in spectacularly effective ways.

Canada isn't Belarus or Iran but we currently are under the reign of a government that shuts down websites that criticise it. Nonetheless, it took only ten days for 200 000 Canadians to join one anti-prorogation group which led to rallies across the country last Saturday. The success of the Facebook group did get some media coverage and the Tories fell fifteen points in the polls in fifteen days.

Harper's people knew of the protest of course and scheduled a press conference on Haiti obviously to divert the attention of our twenty four hours news channels away from live coverage of the protest. I don't know anybody who was in front of the telly to tell me who covered what.

Finally, Haiti is a good example of how we still are tapping the power of digital technology and finding new ways of helping people. Online donations are not new but the popularity and ease of SMS donations proved outstanding. And last week, Comrade Bingo reported on a fantastic website that allow families to upload pictures of family and friends and anybody who has the internet and time can try to match those photos to raw footage of survivors. This is the sort of endeavour that's perfect for those non-rallying slacktivists, for the geeks who can thrive on tasks that require that kind of focus and intensity.

That is the internet at its best and although Morozov is a good sounding board against those who gain by publicising the internet as a gateway to freedom, some slacktivists actually do get things right and get things done.

[Prospect Magazine]

No comments:

Post a Comment


Blog Archive