The Internet for Activists: The Good and The Ugly

I just got back from the Internet for Activists conference. It was a very stimulating experience: Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads spoke about the importance of SEO techniques for activists who wish to get their message out there. Laurie Penny who writes on Penny Red gave activist bloggers two main recommendations:

  • Engage in comments (openly accept comments and REPLY to them; however, don’t let stalkers take over your blog and do so by moderating comments with clear guidelines)
  • Go for quality not quantity (write less posts but write them well)

who does her PhD at UCL recounted her experience of using Facebook for rescuing Guy Njike from deportation. Finally, Karin Robinson talked about how she coordinated the activities of the Americans Abroad for Obama campaign. Interestingly, people earned points on the Obama social net website only if they didn’t sit in front of their computers but went out there.

These examples of online activism show that social net websites reduce communication and coordination costs and, as such, help people to organize off-line activities as well: people who live in the same neighborhood physically meet for the first time because of shared interests on the Internet (e.g., activism). Those examples also show that there is little merit in Susan Greenfield’s contemptible campaign. Frankly I don’t blame those who think she should go.

During these presentations I was thinking about a student project idea:

  • Design a platform for building campaigns. Ideally, such platforms should be easy to use and should allow people to not only engage in online activities but also to easily coordinate their off-line activities (e.g., street demonstrations, writing letters to MPs)

The dark side of activism: The Ugly Mask

The representative of Anonymous was also invited, and his (?) intervention was quite controversial. He concealed his identity with a mask and spoke on behalf of Anonymous. Here is what Anonymous is:

  • (from The Economist) Now Scientology is under attack from a group of internet activists known only as Anonymous. Organised from a Wikipedia-style website (editable by anyone) and through anonymous internet chat rooms, “Project Chanology”, as the initiative is known, presents no easy target for Scientology’s lawyers. It is promoting cyberwarfare techniques normally associated with extortionists, spies and terrorists. Called “distributed denial of service attacks”, these typically involve using networks of infected computers to bombard the target’s websites and servers with bogus requests for data, causing them to crash. Even governments find this troublesome.

The campaign against Scientology may all be very well. However, the assumption behind these self-organizing activists is that they are always right (they are anonymous and, as such, they are not accountable). Unfortunately, this assumption does not always hold. Indeed, most of the activities the Mask presented were either jokes the audience failed to understand or Internet bullying activities. Worringly, this self-organizing entity finds it acceptable to launch DoS attacks against websites that happen to disagree with the entity’s views. Is this the right way to go? Can this be even called activism?

4 Responses to “The Internet for Activists: The Good and The Ugly”

  1. Blogs other than this have covered the conference.

    Here is what Laurie wrote about the ugly mask:
    “I’ve just got back from an internet activists’ conference, which was all kinds of shiny. I shouted at Anonymous, who both looked and talked like rapists in their oh-so-scary masks, when they tried to explain me why they had a policy of using the term ‘cumdumpster’ to describe women. ‘It’s offensive. So it’s funny. It’s funny because it’s offensive, yeah?’
    Dear pointless cigar-smoking prick: you’re an idiot. You ain’t Rorsharch and if you were I’d still be laughing at you, not with you. Grow up, show us your bloody face and learn that bullying and activism do not equate.”

    Here is what Karin wrote:
    “(I will not be blogging about the Masked Man from Anonymous, though he was indeed a jerk, because 1) I think he wants the attention and 2) apart from being online bullies I don’t think they count as actual activists).”

  2. Mike says:

    Speaking of the perils of anonymity, mobblog doesn’t seem to be displaying the authors of articles any more. ;-)

  3. Yeah, it’s a problem with the current blog layout – it’s nice becasue it’s simple but it doesn’t show authors’ names …

  4. problem fixed. thanks neal!