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May 9, 2012

Pro/Con: Can Internet activism replace traditional forms of activism?

by Puck Bregstone, Print Op/Ed Editor and Michelle Chavez, Print News Editor
Puck Bregstone says yes: The Internet has the power to foster global movements that can be as successful as traditional protests.

In January, hundreds of sites including Reddit and Wikipedia held temporary blackouts to protest the bills two bills created to limit pirated content. These bills were called SOPA and PIPA and in the most recent civil rights triumph were stripped of support the persistent and powerful protest of millions of Internet users. Despite the bills being backed by the entire United States entertainment industry with hundreds of lobbyists in Washington millions of individuals on the Internet were able to make dramatic change on capitol hill. Major web browsers and search engines like Mozilla and Google posted information about the harm the bills could cause on their home pages. Facebook, in an unprecedented act of partisan behavior posted up on their site about the dangers of the bill.

Internet users along with Internet—based companies brought their full force to bear, and in under a week, brought a fairly obscure debate between techies and mutli—billion dollar corporations into the public discourse. The tremendous power the Internet was able to wield left traditional media outlets astounded as they scrambled to jump on the bandwagon. Some denigrate this as ‘slacktivism’, but these tactics have been proven to be effective. Today’s highly publicized Internet activism is proving just as effective as traditional activism. In fact Internet activism can reach a larger audience faster and keep a constant two—channel of communication open for organizers and supporters. These advantages will lead Internet activism to replace traditional activism as the trend grows.

The defining aspect of the Internet it it’s global community. As Egyptians lose tolerance for their corrupt government, they can gain a worldwide audience in hours. When protestors on Wall Street want to raise awareness of an issue, every tween in the Midwest can pledge their support without leaving their homes. Activism on the Internet reaches an unprecedented audience. Michael Jones, the Deputy Campaign Director of Change.org explains, “Internet Activism has allowed people to amplify their stories and campaigns to heights that people 10 or 20 years ago could not dream of.” The more people are involved in activism, the more citizens are actively involved in democracy. To decry a movement like this is selfish. Why should the select few with the time and money to march on the White House naysay other forms of
participation?

Traditional forms of activism tend to center around one event. When there is a massive protest in Washington, D. C., or a megaconcert in New York comes to an end, it is forgotten. Without the web, there are very few ways to keep in touch with all of the supporters and a movement quickly dwindles. With an online movement, there is a constant line of communication open for organizers to relay information about the campaign’s upcoming activities to supporters.

On March 5th Invisible Children released a half—hour video on YouTube and Vimeo documenting their actions and promoting their upcoming initiative called Kony 2012. The video went viral, and the influx of traffic to the Invisible Children site it crashed. On Facebook, entire news feeds became dedicated to this one event with millions of users changing their profile pictures and “Likeing” statuses. Almost as soon as the movement gained popularity the campaign began experiencing pushback from all directions. Critics dubbed their activism “slacktivism” and criticized Invisible Children’s methods. While some of the organization’s practices are questionable, their goal was to raise awareness about Kony and Invisible Children, and they have clearly succeeded. Almost anybody in the United States with an Internet connection is sure to know about Kony, as in the end it was given massive media coverage and the idea that they could garner this type of publicity, make Kony a household name, have an article on the front page of the New York Times just by posting a video on YouTube is a testament to the Internet to sway public discourse.

Many critics of Internet activism accuse it of being too easy and appealing to pop culture impulses. Neither of these things is bad. Critics say that the ease and appeal of this type of activism could not be not capable of enacting real change. There are few historical precedents for something being popular, easy and effective. We have reached too high a level of cynicism if critics can write off a movement just because it is popular.

Michelle Chavez says no: Without a traditional driving force, Internet activism will at best speed up the time it takes to make change.

In a span of weeks in 2009, over 27,000 people joined a Facebook group to stop the dismantlement of Stork Fountain in Copenhagen - but the document ordering the strike-down of the fountain was never found. Over 27,000 people were led to believe in a fake cause. The creator of the group is not to blame, however.

The group was an experiment. Over 27,000 people did not bother to look into the issue before joining the group, joining in an attempt to show care for whatever seemed to be, even remotely, an issue. And it happens to almost everyone. Seeing the same topic in Twitter updates and as Facebook statuses draws people onto the bandwagon of a form of activism that consists of retweeting, liking and sharing. Soon, everyone seems to know about whatever issue is out there.

Even though Internet use has catalyzed the speed at which people learn about major issues, Internet activism on its own is not reliable, and traditional forms of activism still serve as the driving force for the purpose of activism, which is not only to inform, but also to promote change.

Imagine the typical congressman whose job it is to be aware of the major issues that concern the public. The typical congressman looks online to see which issues are important on the Internet. However, the opinions shared on the Internet are not the determining factor for which issues will receive the most attention in Congress. Internet activism can only spread the word and, at best, move people to talk to members of Congress. It will not put a face on the supporters - in fact, it depersonalizes them. Congressmen want to see people take one more step to show interest by making phone calls or lobbying. Junior Elizabeth Lakew did just that.

Lakew had made an event page on Facebook for a community conference about bigotry toward Muslim Americans that took place last summer. The page attracted about 100 people from the community, but it was not what motivated influential people like State Senator Jamie Raskin to go to the event. Lakew and other organizers personally contacted elected officials and explained the purpose of their event. Unlike Internet activism, these forms of traditional activism put a face on the activist. Personal requests show that people like Lakew care about an issue more than those who simply support a cause by clicking a mouse. Lakew’s personal contact of significant decision makers brought not only their presence at the event but also their signatures on a resolution to support the purpose of the event.

While there are people like Lakew who use the Internet to direct others to a larger, more effective cause, the majority of Internet users’ motives behind Internet use as activism are much simpler. When the Kony 2012 video went viral, the movement was tweeted about, liked, shared and made into many people’s profile picture. Sophomore Simeon Kakpovi was one of many Blair students who originally showed support for the online movement. He, like many, saw Kony 2012 as a major movement at first and felt that participating would contribute to an event that would make history textbooks. "I felt sort of empowered sharing the video at first since I knew it would definitely gain popularity very fast," he says.

This is the typical reaction to movements like Kony 2012. People who typically do not participate in other forms of activism use Internet activism to feel like they are part of something important without needing to do anything more than click a mouse. This, however, can lead to unintended support from followers who got on the bandwagon without subjecting an issue to scrutiny. Kakpovi later learned about credibility flaws in the Kony movement and changed his mind about his support. There are millions who feel the same way as Kakpovi, but the amount of likes still remains as a false indicator of support. Congressmen know that those who care enough will continue to use traditional forms of activism because it is the driving force for decision makers to make real change.

Just as there is an interaction that causes a reaction, there is a catalyst that facilitates it. Traditional forms of activism can effect change, and the Internet facilitates these results. The catalyst, however, cannot act alone.



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