From the Astroturf to the Netroots
The future of Online Activism and Digital Advocacy
by Julie Jennings Patterson, TWC 421
As we enter the information age, citizens and consumers have the power to change the world now on a faster and moreAn August article in Wired magazine featured self-exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden draped in an American flag. The reaction from the blogosphere was mixed but definitely polarized, with some calling Snowden a traitor and berating Wired’s motives for interviewing him, while others proclaiming heroic for exposing the NSA’s spying on Americans.
In the world of “hacktivism” the line between traitor and crusader is a thin one, and the trade off between freedom of information and international security is a matter of intense debate.Corporate and political “Astroturfing” efforts, information illiteracy and even plain old susceptability to personal bias can make it increasingly difficult to separate “good” from “evil” and truth from fiction in the world of the “netroots,” also known as the digital version of grassroots activism. Hacker “mob justice” can be unpredictable, ranging from the faceless vigilantes of Anonymous to the outright misogyny of “Gamergate.”
Meanwhile, those who advocate for an open internet and a free exchange of information are often the target of online harrassment by “Trolls” and counteractivists. The anonymity of blogs, forums and even, in some cases, social networks allow people the anonymity to lash out negatively with little or no consequence and in doing so bring out the worst in each other.
Still, the emergence of the internet as a sort of “digital commons” and the rise of a globally connected society has unprecedented implications for the future of democracy, equality, and new and undreamt of opportunities to share ideas, spark change and progress around the world. The internet helped launch the “Arab Spring” in Syria and Egypt, drew together a new generation of American activists with Occupy Wall Street and shone a much needed light on racial injustice after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
How, then, do we preserve the digital domain as a place for free speech, discourse and empowerment? First and foremost by recognizing that the challenges of organizing on this new, virtual, turf are still at their core not much different than those faced by our spiritual “ancestors” who marched on Washington for civil rights or protested the Vietnam War.
Now progressive organizers around the country are beginning to see the wisdom of linking the lessons and strategies of the past to the efforts of today. Projects like the Berkely Free Speech Movement and the online tools of groups like moveon.org and the New Organizing Institute work to bring the wisdom of prior generation of activists to the digital sphere. Groups like the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition are making sure that low income activists and people of color have the same access to technology as their privileged neighbors.
Is it an uphill battle? Absolutely. Are people still gullible in the face of misinformation and a slick advertising campaign? As our most recent elections, with their rampant and out of control campaign spending, illustrate, our opinions can be influenced with a slick marketing campaign in a short amount of time. Does this mean it’s all a lost cause?
Not at all. Since the movie “Supersize Me” we’ve seen healthy choices begin to crop on fast food menus. Since Occupy Wall Street, bank fees have started to slide. Since Ferguson, racial profiling is finally being discussed seriously. All tiny victories. But all changes in the right direction. We have a long way to go. But we have the whole rest of the world to reach out to. And that’s more than we’ve ever had before.