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Online Activism Can Work Online Activism Can Work
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Online Activism Can Work

by Kristina Loring

December 23, 2009

Despite what some say, getting involved on the internet can lead to meaningful change.
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"Without community, there is no liberation."

-Audre Lorde

A lot of activists cringe at the idea of moving their efforts online. They fear the insulting label of "slacktivist"; one who joins a cause online and fades away. I get it. I've asked the same skeptical questions: Are we walking through the doors of a factory each time we sign into another "network"? Are we fragmenting our collective identity and yielding to the desire for empathetic unification with strangers who have never heard how heavy we breathe after protesting against the oppressive 'isms that silence us? Is my avatar really creating a change?

Well, I think it's time to raise a virtual fist. Online activism is not only meaningful; it's essential, and it extends far beyond simple digital philanthropy or a virtual commitment to join a cause with the click of a "thumbs up."

The interconnected network of media outlets and online spaces actually resembles the systems and political battlegrounds that have always been the focus of movements of resistance. And if we are to change these online spaces, as those before us have tried to change physical world, then like them, we have to work within the system we are striving so desperately to change.

If the traditional activist groups whose history is rooted in Angela Davis's radical movement of the 1960s or Emma Goldman's demands at the turn of the century do not embrace the internet as a tool that is meant to be utilized, then we surrender a vital channel to those who favor privatization and strive to isolate voices of individuality, equality, and protest. Or as the computer scientist and visual artist Jonathan Harris puts it, "Instead of fleeing to the forest, we must find the humanity in the machine and learn to love it. If we decide humanity does not yet exist there in the ways we expect, then we must create it."

Ideally, internet-led social movements would form a symbiotic relationship with their "on-the-ground" counterparts. Using social media outlets to propel a social cause cannot merely be a two-way dialogue-online and offline activism should not exist as diametrically opposed efforts. Think of online and offline activism efforts working towards the same goal as a meta-coalition, bringing solidarity and strength to a movement by providing consciousness, protection, connection, and documentation.

Creating an awareness and consciousness around an issue is the first step in building and articulating a movement's demands and priorities. Blogging and micro-blogging serve as digital fliers or zines, while the social networks provide both a virtual printing press and a soapbox upon which activists can stand, free of the sponsorship and ratings constraints shackling the mainstream media.

The most prominent example of an online network supplying such crucial information is when media giant CNN failed to provide coverage of the protests in Tehran after the recent Iranian presidential election. Because of the mainstream media's failure, the Twittersphere quickly became a media watchdog. This online protest of mainstream media, marked with tweets and the hashtag #CNNFail, drew more attention towards the protests on the ground in Iran, as bloggers, tweeters, and members of Facebook groups worked to fill the void left by CNN.

In fact, online communities sprang up determined to stream the voices, videos, and other content that was being censored on the internet. One website of hackers that is still growing is Haystack, which provides "a computer program that allows full, uncensored access to the Internet even in areas with heavy Internet filtering." The program allows users of heavily censored networks in countries like Iran to use normal web browsers and network applications.

Their effort spawned the Censorship Research Center, a nonprofit group that "helps [to] secure and safeguard [the] human right to free communication, especially with regard to emergent 21st-century communication technologies like the Internet." These efforts not only promote offline action by providing a platform to convey resistance in digital mediums, but they also protect it. An extension of this effort is the group's newly formed Committee to Protect Bloggers that helps spotlight on-the-ground political protests. Without such online systems in place, these efforts could easily go undocumented, and even more frightening, uncommunicated to a greater audience of potential activists and supporters.

In addition to raising awareness and action around an issue, digital activism can facilitate the creation of alliances. I am certainly not equating a Facebook friendship or following someone on Twitter with actual cultivated relationships, but if you're building a movement, sometimes the growing base of followers, fans, and pageviews adds up to more than clicking a button. In the fall of 2008, during the "No on 8" campaign for marriage equality in California, the group's online networks and website were only brought into full force six weeks before the election. Prior to the website's redesign and launch of these social networks, the "No on 8" campaign raised only about $1 million in online contributions. In the final six weeks, the campaign raised approximately $22 million. The internet can provide an incredible avenue for fund raising and philanthropy. While those dollars were crucial to the campaign's longevity and exposure (a group can literally raise money in the morning so a commercial can air on television that afternoon), I was more intrigued by the support and morale those social networks provided than I was by their return on investment.

Finally, amid the websites, blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, photo/video/audio-sharing tools and the sometimes overwhelming frenzy of content, we must see this digital space as a constantly revised and edited library for archiving the instantly documented forms of protest collected in empowered clusters in the streets. An understanding of a movement's construction, tactics, and devices lead to an informed understanding on how to mobilize moving forward.

So in this time of organization-less organizing and blurred boundaries between our virtual and "actual" lives, it is important to consider emerging forums or tools for proactive social change, rather than think of these modalities as competing with one another. From hitting the streets to hitting the keyboard to embedding your digital and spoken conversations with political dissidence, the building of a social movement needs collective action on all avenues, including the internet.

Kristina Loring is a writer and activist living in San Francisco.

Photo of a protester's computer allegedly destroyed by the Iranian government from Flickr user 27389271 (cc)

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Online Activism Can Work