As I clicked on yet another internet petition, this time designed to stop the reckless destruction of Oceanic Eco-systems ( AAVAZ.ORG “24 hours to end Ocean clear-cuts”), I realized that I was participating in what has become an increasingly alarming or encouraging trend, depending on how you look at it, in political activism: the internet social network driven protest. In a 2007 interview with CNN, Canadian celebrity lefty and best-selling author Naomi Klein made the following observation about this novel form of registering one’s anger over alleged injustices: “It’s safer to mouth off in a blog than put your body on the line. The Internet is an amazing organizing tool but it also acts as a release, with the ability to rant and get instant catharsis. It’s taken that sense of urgency away.”
Despite her quasi-celebrity status, Ms. Klein has no time for what she calls “Bono-ization” of the protest movement. A phenomenon whereby celebrities take on popular cause célÃ¨bre (i.e. developing world debt) and lobby governments (I.e. Paul Martin) to take action. This may alleviate some of our guilt in the developed world over the seemingly horrible social and economic inequities that have been caused, in part, by the globalization of the economy, but it is, in her view, a kind of vicarious protest, at best, and very unlikely to put serious pressure on politicians or cause any substantive changes at the policy level.
In the interview, Ms. No Logo goes on to urge us to take our protest to the next level by leaving the comfort of our homes and getting involved in confrontational, and indeed, potentially dangerous direct action type protests. “We have had mass social movements that are messy — and that leads to some kind of negotiation and some kind of representation. What I see from the Bono camp is that they dismiss street protest as a bunch of gripers, whereas they (Bono) are being constructive because they are engaging with power”
While I would concede that online petitions lack the drama of street protests and direct action, I’m also skeptical about the possibility of finding causes that will truly bring people out on to the streets in an effort to change the hearts & minds of our leadership and the general public. The cynicism with which most people view mass demonstrations is unfortunate but understandable, and is related to the inability of recent movements to reverse the course of governments in certain highly controversial cases. Take the anti Iraq war protests, for instance. Massive protests were held all over the world, including Canada, against this war (over a million turned up in London alone!). The result of this: In Britain, at least, absolutely nothing. The Blair government had already crossed the Rubicon, and decided to join the US on its inexorable path to war. In the face of such appalling disregard for the voices of protesters, can anyone really blame people for being less and less likely to take to the streets? Bono may look ridiculous sometimes, mugging for the international press in the company of war criminal and buffoons like former president George W. Bush, but there is little doubt that his heart is in the right place as he attempts to persuade world leaders to address the issues of poverty and the growing disparity between haves & have nots.
But the greatest rebuttal to this plea for less internet activism and more traditional forms of protests must surely be the recent examples of internet activism that led to actual revolutions in places such as Egypt and Tunisia. Let’s never forget that so many of these protesters were able to co-ordinate their actions through the social networks (i.e. Twitter). Not to mention, disseminate the latest news from the street to the whole world using internet activism, giving us all the vicarious thrill of participating in a bona-fide old school revolutionary movement! The likes of which hasn’t been seen since the end of the cold war.