The Pros and Cons of Online Protest
The ease with which we can rally people through online social media may be changing the way we protest, but can it replace more traditional offline methods?
Digital ProtestProtesting is traditionally associated with marching through urban centres armed with homemade banners and megaphones, but is this method now out of step with modern society? After all when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London, Belfast and Glasgow in 2003 to oppose the Iraq War it was an unprecedented display of public opposition towards the actions of its government - yet it made no difference whatsoever. The pro-hunting march of 2002 was one of umpteen other high-profile street protests that had no discernible effect.
As communication moves into the digital realm is the future of protest not in the streets but on the web? By protesting online organisers can attract much larger and wider support, are better able to organise people and can be clearer and better defined in their objectives.
Online SuccessThe scrapping of the government’s mooted plans to introduce a road pricing scheme in 2007 was largely the result of an online petition that had managed to amass 1.8 million signatures and in doing so compellingly demonstrate the British public’s vehement opposition to the policy.
It was online campaigners that successfully led the fight to stop the Freedom of Information Act being changed to conceal MPs expenses. With the web helping to organise and facilitate the campaign, the 2009 scandal proved to not only be a victory for people power but a triumph for online protest.
As part of the campaign, 7000 people joined a dedicated Facebook group and sent thousands of emails to a large majority of the nation’s MPs, while hundreds of thousands more were awakened to the story through TheyWorkForYou.com - a charity run website aimed informing people what MPs and parliament are up to on their behalf - email alerts and their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Too Easy to Complain, too Easy to DismissIt’s ease is one of the chief advantages of online protest, but it’s also one of its major drawbacks. It can be too easy to both generate and pledge support.
Through using email, Twitter and Facebook to invite and incite people to complain, protest, sign a petition, join a pressure group, an online protest can quickly build up considerable support. There are now thousands of active e-petitions and Facebook groups for subjects that veer wildly from the potentially life changing to the utterly banal, and many, sometimes regardless of worth, have attracted thousands of supporters and ‘signatures’.
But how much of that support are truly committed to the cause? How many of those people happy to give up ten seconds to sign an online petition would willingly take to the streets for the same cause?
The ease with which anyone can pledge their support reduces the time actually spent thinking about how they really feel about the issue. What's more when it becomes too easy to complain it becomes too easy to dismiss.
Online Supporting RoleE-petitions can play an important role but rather than lead the charge they generally need to be supporting more direct action undertaken by a more committed, persistent and imaginative heart to the campaign.
When Peter Roberts first posted his road pricing petition on the 10 Downing Street website he didn’t just sit back and wait for the signatures to roll in, he emailed as many driving related websites and publications he could find, and then encouraged all recipients to forward on his email and promote his protest.
His campaign didn’t stop there. Having secured 40,000 names, it then moved offline when various media outlets took an interest in the story and, in doing so, gave the issue a much wider exposure, kick-starting a national debate.
The Power of the MediaThe case highlights how successful protest is often the result of a combination of online and offline tactics. For instance, while street action shows a visible strength of feeling, online action facilitates quick, broad and virulent communication.
The example also stresses that, like with street protest, the media can often play a pivotal role.
The problem with relying on the media is that they want a story that is interesting and fresh. Roberts’ e-petition campaign was novel at the time, and a news story in itself, but it isn’t anymore. Campaigners must always be thinking of new ways of attracting people’s attention whether online or not.