This article is partly a rehash of things that I have said before, but I think it bears repeating.
You have probably heard that the student movement against the increase of tuition fees made extensive use of Social Networks. You probably know that UK Uncut and other anti-cuts groups are organised entirely via Twitter, Facebook and their website. But the key thing, we are told, is getting out there in person to protest. Actually protesting on the internet (rather than organising) seems to be frowned upon. I recently read an article titled Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism. The gist of the argument is that activism on the internet has no effect because it consists of adding names to petitions and sending out form emails to MPs. I think that article missed the point; and missed the huge opportunities presented by the internet.
In a Guardian article last month Clifford Singer said that Social media has transformed protest. He talked about how social media has been used to unite activist groups and organise real-world actions, and he was correct to say that protest has been transformed, but there is another important point to make about the power of the internet in its own right.
As a political activist who is chronically sick I have found it extremely frustrating to be undergoing a severe relapse at a time when I want nothing more than to be out protesting. I want to stand up and be counted but at the moment I can barely stand up at all. But have I really been deprived of a voice? Has my chance to change things been lost because of my illness? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say no. In fact, I think I personally have had more influence through the internet than I would have had out on the streets.
Activism on the internet is not just about adding your email address to petitions, or clicking “Like” on Facebook. Petitions have their place, but tend to carry less weight than letters and debate, which is where the real power of the internet lies. I think the key areas where the internet can change things are Awareness, Debate and Influence. With millions of people using social networks raising awareness is much easier than in the physical world. Current issues come up in daily conversation online, and an interesting thing about social networks is that your friends get to see what you are talking about, even if they don’t follow the whole conversation.
The nature of the internet is such that with a bit of luck a good blog article or Youtube video can “go viral” and end up in front of hundreds of thousands of people who would not otherwise be aware of the issues. Although I was taken by surprise when this has happened to me in the past it is good to know that I had some impact even though I could not go out on the streets myself.
Social networks are a great leveller. Journalists, TV presenters, CEOs, celebrities and politicians all use social networks. It is easy, even commonplace, to have a discussion involving someone influential and to either become more informed by them or to inform and influence them yourself. I have witnessed a party affiliation change after a discussion with Ed Milliband via twitter, and I have seen MPs decide to sign Early Day Motions after constituents contacted them through twitter. I have seen journalists write about issues and bring them to a wider audience after they became aware of them through Facebook and twitter.
Websites like They Work For You and What Do They Know make it easy to keep tabs on what your elected representatives are doing at all levels of government. Sites such as Write To Them give an effortless way to send our thoughts to our politicians, sending our missives by email where it is an option, or by fax where it is not. The Tweetminster website can put you in touch with your MP via twitter. Form letters are not so effective, but thoughtful discussion through these methods can make a difference.
I am not arguing that everyone should cease protesting immediately or that they should move back from the streets to the internet. Far from it. I believe that changing opinion requires the use of every available method of protest. But here’s the thing: If you want to change opinions and like me, you can’t go out to protest, the internet isn’t such a bad place to be.