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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