Desperate for a revolution

A post on Moju forces us to think about the degree to which the internet actually helps democratic social transformation. Two paragraphs stand out in the article for me:

In short, where the hell is everybody?

I’ll tell you where they are. They’re at home, tuning in to root for the next “American idol.” They’re plugged into their iPods, utterly self-involved and disconnected from what lies just outside their doors. They’re spending 25 hours a week playing video games in virtual worlds instead of fighting to save the only world that really matters. They’re surfing porn. They’re text messaging and e-mailing and scheming to close that next big deal. They’re flogging their useless crap on eBay.


The real voices of dissent and engagement are found on the internet these days, but the internet is simply too diffuse to effectively galvanize a revolution.

And we desperately need a revolution.

Debates on the efficacy of internet used as a tool for social activism aren’t new. While such activism may already be prevelant in the US countries like China for example are rebelling against internet based activism by even tighter controls on information flows. While some point to what they see as an abundance of social activism on the internet with scholarly articles pointing to the complex interplay of in-country socio-political dynamics and diaspora engagement facilitated through the internet / web as being ultimately beneficial to democracy, such as the case of Burma.

But really, are we making a difference? In “flogging our useless crap on eBay” is the global and local diffusion of those on the web, often behind veils of annonymity, necessarily an indicator of the failure of internet activism?

I think not.

Firstly, let us acknowledge that much of the work done in support of peacebuilding, human security, reconciliation and the overall strengthening of democracy in a post-conflict context is done by grassroots organisations with little or no recognition in the mainstream media. Their work is largely invisible in the analysis of those who conflate civil society with large urban NGOs who may run peacebuilding campaigns on the internet that benefit communities far less than the work done on a daily basis by those at the hinterlands of donor awareness and the frontlines of violence.

But again, this is no measure of web / internet based activism, which addresses and galvanises ideas and action from a very different target group. For instance, as I’ve noted earlier, games can be a powerful force to focus attention on the plight of those who need help for sustainable development. (See Third World Farmer, Technologies of Play: Video Games and Gender, Darfur is Dying : Using games for political activism). Campaigns such as Irrepresible by Amnesty International now seek to bring together web based movements in support of the Freedom of Expression with activists on the ground in order to create stronger networks of Human Rights activists worldwide.

And there have been social revolutions that have been aided by the use of technology and internet technologies, in particular mobiles, with new studies that explore the potential of such technologies in the promoting democracy after a social revolution – such as the case of Nepal.

On the other hand, the lack of mobilisation by people on account of complex cultural & socio-political reasons cannot then be blamed on the medium. The internet is a tool for communication. Used effectively it can galvanise ideas into action. Used ineffectively, it adds little to processes of democratisation or peace. The issue is not so much that people surf porn, use eBay or live in virtual reality, but how the web and internet can interest these people in social activism.

The crux of the problem is in the creation of content that is able to kindle the interest of those unused to the drudgery and often, very real danger, of activism on the ground and then how to translate ideas expressed online into actions that support real world change. One way is through the capacity building of a larger spectrum of civil society organisations so as to enable them to tap into support online to help them in their real-world work – either through knowledge transfers or through funding needed to continue their projects. The other is to encourage those who share their ideas online to explore ways to link up with organisations that seem to be doing similar work on the ground – from international actors such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or UN agencies to local civil society initiatives supported by NGOs & businesses and local grassroots initiatives that don’t necessarily have websites, but are contactable through telephone.

Fora such as Moju and various personal blogs in Sri Lanka offer the space for new thinking on the dual transformation of the conflict necessary in Sri Lanka – transformation of the State and transformation of the LTTE. Activism to support such a process of democratisation is already supported by a concert of local, regional and international governmental and non-governmental actors.

The power of the internet and web is that;

  • you can support these activities through open discussion on the web, which the organisations can then use as a measure of support for their work
  • you can flag initiatives you think are worth supporting financially through donations
  • you can flag projects that people can volunteer in to help build local capacities
  • you can use mobile technologies and Skype to create discussions amongst youth in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora on helping youth affected by the conflict
  • you can flag anecdotal stories from the field that engender hope
  • you can flag story ideas for the media to write on
  • bring to attention the issues of conflict and peace to those in urban areas not usually interested in them
    post photos on Flickr that show communities engaged in initiatives that help strengthen democracy, development and human security
  • you can use meeting that bring together young bloggers to talk about ways that collaboratively highlight issues related to democracy and human rights
  • post soundbites and videos from personal interviews with mentors or those working in the field in Sinhala, Tamil and English
  • produce short documentaries that are pod-cast friendly – making content that’s hip and interesting to those in urban areas, but at the same time address issues of peace and conflict

The diffusion of the internet needs to be seen as a strength, not a weakness and imaginative content production that harnesses the sheer diversity of opinion on online forums to effectively strengthen real-world change is only held back on account of our restrictive understanding of using the internet for social change.

Social change is a complex long-term affair. As a (Sri Lankan?) blogger points out:

When revolutions DO work, it’s because they’re the culmination of years of foundation-laying.

This was certainly the case of Nepal, where a decade of slow, deeply frustrating and complex processes aimed at building and strengthening democracy managed to create the wide-scale public support necessary to unequivocally tell the King his time was up.

There is a lesson there for all of us who seek instant revolutions.

Related posts:
Nepal – Technology and Democracy
Public Service Broadcasting – using technology for democracy
Irrepressible – Amnesty International
Defeating repressive regimes
Defeating repressive regimes – Take 2

Interesting websites:
An Introduction to Activism on the Internet
The Virtual Activist 2.0
Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents
Networking Dissent in Burma
International Internet Activism

One thought on “Desperate for a revolution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s