Online Activism: Can it Work?

MMW thanks Ali Eteraz for The Huffington Post tip.

Last week, Peter Daou at The Huffington Post wrote about the use of the internet’s growing and powerful use as an activist medium. He stated that “[o]ne universal aspect of effective activism is raising awareness and there’s no doubt that the web is an ideal tool to do that…” He continued to say that the rise of the internet as a tool of activism is “transformative, not just because it is a web-driven enhancement of traditional political and social mechanisms (as we’ve seen with organizing and fundraising) but because it is a radically different way that the world processes information and understands itself.” Daou noted that although online sources are a useful way to spread information, “there’s a tendency to expect too much of the medium and that despite the dramatic growth of the Internet as a political tool, we have a long way to go before it becomes a lever of true power for individuals and a mechanism for sweeping reform.”

To explain the limits of the internet as a tool of activism, in a panel discussion in which he was involved, Daou gave the example of the tragic and disturbing story of Aisha Duhulow, the 13-year old Somali girl who was raped but accused of adultery, and as a result, stoned to death as punishment. Hence his title, “Can the internet be used to prevent another Aisha?”

His use of this incident was interesting. Yes, this was a horrific incident, but perhaps the use of cases closer to home may have made the point clearer. A case so far from Western consciousness would seem difficult to intervene in, regardless of the use of technology. However, explaining that the internet has not been able to close down Guantanamo Bay or stop the oppression of First Nations people or the disappearance and/or murdering of prostitutes may have demonstrated the limits of the internet in a more powerful way. Using the incident of a Muslim girl once again makes it seem as if human rights violations occur in other, namely Muslim, parts of the world, and not here in North America.

Additionally, the use of this incident to demonstrate the limitations of the internet is inadequate. The real limitations are of human efforts. The real limitations are of an international economic system that maintains a power imbalance in the world, privileging a few with wealth and education, while disadvantaging others — disadvantages which can lead to ignorance, frustration, and even chaos. Therefore, to prevent tragedies like that of Aisha Duhulow, the real focus will need to be at much more of a macro level, of which the internet will be a vital player.

And speaking of using the internet and technology for activism, we came across an Amnesty International film, shot at last month’s Amnesty International U.K. student conference, meant to demonstrate international solidarity with women’s rights activists in Iran and for the One Million Signatures Campaign. Yes, I said in solidarity with Iranian women.

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Heather Harvey, Amnesty International U.K.’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign manager, has said:

“I think it just shows how many people all around the world are actually watching what is happening in Iran and are supporting the women’s campaign,” Harvey told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

She said the film is not a direct effort to change Iranian laws. That’s for the authorities in Tehran and the Iranian people to do, she says.

“We are trying to show solidarity, to say to the women that we do support what they’re campaigning for. They’re simply campaigning for equality and for equal rights. [Those] equal rights are perfectly within the framework for the Iranian Constitution, within Islamic women’s rights, [within] international human rights. There is no real conflict.”

I have to admit that I do like the idea of solidarity. The film was not made to speak to the Iranian government for Iranian women, nor to speak in place of Iranian women. Rather, the film was made to speak to Iranian women to tell them that the international community supported their work. In doing so, the film makers have recognized that 1) Iranian women’s rights activists exist within Iran, and 2) that they are working hard within their own country and culture.

The film itself has no spoken words, but rather many students carrying banners, all with the One Million Signatures Campaign symbol, along with words of support, including using the words of Shirin Ebadi.

However, I am really not sure what to make of the effigies of Iranian women. To be honest, they just seemed a little scary. And sad. I am assuming they were representing those Iranian women who are being oppressed, but in my opinion, they were completely unnecessary. The video would have been just right without the effigies; they added that cringe factor. You know, the one you feel when you’re listening to a great comedian tell what seems like a great joke, but then they cross the line with an offensive punchline. It was all going so well until…. The effigies not only seemed to depict sad women, they also depicted what could be considered racially offensive faces. Not to mention monolithic women, all dressed the same way. There is really no way to make effigies accurate or serious. The overall message of the film, which was progressive and commendable, became a little tainted with the effigies; they really should have just left them out.

Activism through the internet has certainly become popular. The constantly growing number of Facebook groups for various causes is just one testament to this. Even here on MMW, we engage in a form of online activism. And although this activism has its limits, these limits can be overcome by understanding the root causes of those problems we wish to solve and tackling them from that root. With its purpose being to spread information, the internet can be, and has been, a part of this change.

What are your thoughts on online activism?

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  • Esra’a

    The question to me is not whether activism online works or not, it’s more like, “how does it work the best way.” Because it should already be established that it does in fact work, even in a region as turbulent as the Middle East.

    For the past 2 years my life has been dedicated solely to activism online and the results are outstanding. This tool (the internet, which is much more than just a medium) has empowered us beyond belief, and it does more than merely provide a global platform in which we can share our opinions, uncensored and in an open fashion.

    And if you really want to see the effectiveness of writing online, you only need to explore the fact that more bloggers have been arrested than journalists have in the past few years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. See the graphic here.

    Had it not been for the internet, would the world know about the 8 year old who escaped a forced marriage in Yemen, and is now being awarded and her courage is recognized internationally, which has shamed the Yemeni media? Would Nazanin be executed in Iran by now had it not been for the massive online efforts to help free her? Would all the bloggers, journalists, film-makers and more be free without the viral online campaigns to successfully demand and achieve their release? Would we be aware of crimes against minorities that are documented, in some countries solely on the internet due to censorship in the traditional media?

    I spend so much of my time being active for social issues on the Internet because it does help. If it doesn’t, and I didn’t see real, concrete results of my work and the work of others, I wouldn’t be this involved at all. The power and effectiveness of the internet is undeniable.

  • Salaam

    I don’t participate in Facebook so I can’t speak to that.

    The internet facilitates connection, but one key to its success is that it is a low-context medium, ie, we communicate through our written word only – there is no non-verbal connection and no impressions/judgments about shy-bold, judgemental-outgoing, same-gender and inter-gender competition, young-old, married-single, orthodox-liberal, student-teacher, upper class/poor, adolescent/elderly (unless we explicitly make them issues). I can really listen to someone better without the background noise that the rest of these dimensions of human personhood create.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m no misanthrope. I love people and I’m natively curious about everyone including – maybe even especially – the people I interact with online and whose work I admire or argue with, but for the purposes of moving an activist project forward, or even just for the purpose of advocating, it helps to remove interpersonal distractions.

    Also, I’ll be linking and excerpting this at my blog.

  • Fatemeh

    I agree with you about the Iranian video: WTF are those effigies about? And I could be wrong, but the music sounds Kurdish. Though there is a large Kurdish population in certain parts of Iran, it seems weird to use a Kurdish song rather than a Farsi one for an Iranian video…

  • Yusra

    I like your point about choosing a topic that’s closer to home to illustrate the case of online activism. The internet is an effective form of activism, but it will never replace mobs of protesters in the street. I remember the youtube video of the Saudi woman who posted a video of herself driving in protest of the government’s ban. The reaction to that was positive, especially amongst people who know nothing about Saudi Arabia. It didn’t do much to change the situation, but what if thousands of Saudi women did the same thing? Would their government crack under the pressure? Ultimately, the Internet is an important tool that let’s us understand another world, without leaving our living room. The voice its given to bloggers in places where there is not freedom of expression especially, should not be underestimated.

    The online research firm Harris Interactive reports that 50 percent of women prefer the Internet to sex… So females may actually be the pioneers of this online activism…

  • cycads

    I’m not sure whether online activism works or not. One of the most important things about getting a message through is getting noticed. For me, online petitions or being a member of a facebook group is a passive way of getting noticed whereas going out in public demonstrating demands commitment and conviction in the cause that is being fought for, and it certainly gets attention.

    Blogging in certain countries where the media controlled by the ruling government is certainly an act of micro-activism. In these countries information is vetted to suit the interests of those in power, but not those of the people. This is where online activism is popular – it is a democratic form of expression; anyone can say anything s/he likes!

  • Rochelle

    The internet is an incredibly powerful tool for activism when used correctly. Obama’s campaign is a perfect example.

  • Julie

    Thanks for posting on this topic. Internet activism can be a powerful means of spreading awareness and building community. It can also lead to “armchair activism” in the same way that reading many books but not collaborating or being active on the streets can.

    I also think that teens and young adults do place a lot of emphasis on the technological world and that this is engaging younger generations. Again, it also has it’s drawbacks. For example, blogging can encourage individualism. Even being 30 years old and not having “grown-up” with technology as much as women 5-10 years younger than me, I find myself more cautious of technology since it’s not as normalized for me as it is with most of the slightly younger activists I work with.

    I find the book Women@internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace by Wendy Harcourt an interesting read on how “democratizing” the Internet can and can’t be. It’s 10 years old now, but still has relevance.

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  • Ethar

    @ Julie: I am loving the term ‘armchair activism!’

  • Fatemeh

    LOL! Cosign on the internet preference! I guess we’ll have to come up with some sort of term now: “I don’t date guys, sorry. I’m cybersexual.”