This new breed of activism carries some weight too—the British government provides a basis for e-petitions to be signed on relevant public issues from immigration to badger culling, and with 100,000 online signatures the issue will be considered for debate in parliament. The sound of so many keys typing in unison can evidently be deafening and the facility of interweb communities makes such like-minded connectivity easier than ever, providing a platform for protests such as Occupy Wall Street. However, according to the provocatively named Government Digital Service behind this scheme, between August 2011 and August 2012 a total of 36,000 e-petitions were proposed and just 10 reached the 100,000 mark. Limited progress so far then, but at the very least it prevents all those trees from being cut down to print the petitions out.
But apathetic perils are associated with such a form of sit-down protest; in a world full of cyber distraction, there is a question as to the extent of impetus behind each like on Facebook, and real-world impact behind publicising charitable causes online, precisely because it is so easy to show transient online support from the remote and comforting situation of your own living quarters.
The Human Rights Campaign for equal marriage rights in March epitomises this; their pink and red marriage equality sign went viral on millions of Twitter and Facebook profiles, publicising the cause to more people than any bumper sticker campaign could. Such a propensity to share and reflect social values is clear but as with e-petitions, the extent to which it does currently affect the judicial and governmental decision makers remains questionable. After all, it remains much easier for policy makers to detach themselves from a twitter campaign than it does to ignore people camped on your doorstep.
The infamous Kony 2012 campaign headed by father-turned-activist Jason Russell of Invisible Children Inc. was an all too bare (excuse the pun) demonstration of this fickle cyber activism. Though the campaign raised the horror of abducted child soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony, it proved mistimed, naive and overly simplistic in its approach to the problem of the LRA and Kony, who were driven from Northern Uganda in 2005 with an International Criminal Court warrant placed on Kony’s head. And yet it dredged up a global audience of close to 100,000,000 views on Youtube, inspiring the masses in a brief and intense way that only the ephemeral news cycles of Facebook and Twitter can facilitate. What results is an expanding bubble of likes and hashtags which doesn’t necessarily have palpable substance or research beneath its delicate exterior. And if the online support pops, as it did with Kony 2012, or when attention is drawn to the next thing going viral, there’s very little to show for the forgotten online hype—effective activism arguably requires persistent pressure which is at odds with such transient trending.
Open communication is a main battleground for online activists; the World Wide Web’s ethos of accessibility makes the ether fertile ground for activist ideas. But this also allows for controversial methods of sharing ideals, such as the whistleblowing of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks and the ‘hacktivism’ of organisations such as Anonymous and LulzSec. Wikileaks provided a rare insight into internet accountability, with one of their suspected document suppliers arrested within ‘The Land of the Free.’ The murky dark art of hacktivism centres on protest against oppressive organisations—rather than painting the town red they often achieve this by painting the web pages black. It is by nature amorphous, with its members attacking everyone from the FBI in response the file-sharing site Megaupload.com’s closure, to paedophilia sites, to Paypal. It highlights a danger that online activism can become detached from morals, for what defines the hacktivist’s success is the proficiency of the hack rather than the morality of their underlying message. Such anarchistic confusion is especially the case in ‘denial of service’ hacks, which prevent or hinder access to certain web pages, impinging on the very freedom of communication hacktivists so often protest —but when you’re Anonymous, who’s accountable?
There’s a common detachment from reality in these examples, a numbness between the online and offline worlds so often present in cyber activity; a detachment from consequence, with no uniformed bobby tugging at your trouser leg as you shout your message from on high. Detachment is at the heart of the worst side of e-activism—communicating an activist message is now remarkably easy, and there’s no question that this has allowed ideas to be shared in an unprecedented manner. But this inevitably includes a portion of sit-down activists, or inactivists, whose detachment from offline action means there ultimately isn’t much weight under their index finger. Surprisingly the words of the Gallagher brothers provide some food for thought here: ‘I’m going to start a revolution from my bed’ may be twisting the original intentions of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’’s philosophy, but the sentiment rings true here.