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In 2008, an economic crash exposed the truth of a system in which the wealthy benefit and the rest of us pay for it. But the rest of us have fought back. Since 2008, and especially since 2010, the world has been rocked by the power of the have-nots acting together. Dictators, corporations and elected governments were taken by surprise in the face of the power from below. From Mexico City to Madrid, from Hong Kong to Cape Town, protest camps sprang up in public squares. The '99%' demanded that the '1%' give up control. Three dictators fell in north Africa. Activists put corporate tax dodging on the mainstream political agenda. A global movement challenged attitudes to sexual violence. Israel and Quebec saw the biggest protests in their history. Greece came closer to electing a radical left-wing government than any country in the European Union since it was formed. In the face of popular protests, the Chinese government reversed a policy on energy and Saudi Arabia gave the vote to women.
This is not to say it has been easy. Regimes such as Bahrain and Syria have unleashed unimaginable levels of terror on their own people. European and North American governments have responded to the economic crisis by demanding that the poorest should pay for it. Relatively democratic countries have seen an increase in police violence and harsh sentences for protesters. Corporations have continued to wield unaccountable power. And of course, for all the global movements and successes we hear about, there are many more campaigns that fail to make much impact.
The years following 2010 have been compared to the uprisings in central and eastern Europe in 1989, to the global wave of protests in 1968, to the 'great unrest' of 1910-1914 and to the revolutions of 1848. Historians will be writing about these movements for centuries. They will debate many of the questions that are now being asked, along with others that we cannot imagine.
Few questions about this global outbreak of activism raise as much controversy as the role of the internet. There are cyber-utopians who attribute the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, anti-austerity campaigns and other global movements entirely to technology. Some eagerly speak of a 'Facebook revolution' or 'social media revolt' with little if any reference to the economic factors and human complexities that have triggered unrest, protest and change. It seems bizarre to see technological change as a bigger cause of the recent outbreak of activism than the global economic crash that it immediately followed. This is not to say that the crash was the only factor. The social movements of recent years have been varied. They have been influenced by complex historical and cultural factors. However, the economic situation has been the trigger for many of them and we won't get very far by talking about cyberactivism without taking into account the role of economics.
As James L Gelvin puts it in his book on the Arab revolts, 'Attributing the uprisings to social media transforms the protagonists into patsies who act not because they choose to but because they are are somehow technologically compelled to'.i It also implies that the real credit for social change should go to the heads of transnational corporations such as Facebook and Twitter, rather than to the millions of people who have bravely stood up to oppression.
At the other extreme of the debate are those who think that the internet has made no difference at all. The writer Evgeny Morozov, who has made a career out of denying that the net is a tool of liberation, dismissed the importance of social media in the Tunisian revolution even as Tunisians were saying how vital it had been.ii Some even argue that the internet is undermining activism. Jonathan Heawood, director of the Sigrid Rausing Trust for promoting human rights, says that 'Twitter and other social networks have given people the impression that fighting for human rights is easy: all you have to do is hit “retweet” and the world will be a better place.'iii This argument implies that there are large numbers of people sitting at their computers who would be out on the streets protesting were it not for the invention of Twitter. To say the least, this seems unlikely. Recent years have shown that many people are sufficiently angry, realistic and courageous to realize that protesting online is not enough on its own. The thousands who braved the cold to camp in public squares, the many more imprisoned and tortured from Beijing to Riyadh and the nonviolent protesters who gave their lives in Bahrain and Egypt are hardly examples of lazy activists.
Heawood is right to recognize that there are millions of people who sign online petitions but take no further action. But it is doubtful that they believe that this alone is changing the world. It is likely that many of them would take no political action at all were it not for the internet. Rather than deterring people from activism, the internet has drawn people to it.
Take British student Adam Whybray, who signed up to give a monthly donation to Amnesty International and to receive emails about their campaigns. He told me that an email about Troy Davis, a US man about to be executed after what Amnesty regarded as an unfair process, 'really struck a nerve with me'. He explains, 'After signing a petition and encouraging friends on Facebook to do so and informing my family, I was inspired to attend the campus Amnesty meeting about the case'. He decided to become involved in activism 'in the real world', joined protests over tuition fees and 'really grasped that the personal is the political'.iv
The internet has been a tool, not a cause, of social change. It has profoundly affected the way people communicate. It has made it easier for people to see the truth that the powerful would rather hide, to learn from activists on the other side of the world, to co-ordinate campaigns without hierarchy and to expose governments and corporations to public ridicule. It has also helped those same governments and corporations to spy on activists, to disrupt campaigns, to spread their own messages through well-funded advertising and to create an illusion of popular support.
There are a number of academic books that explore in intricate detail the role that technology plays in life and politics today. This is not one of them. It is a book about grassroots activism. In particular, it is about the activism that has swept the world since the crash of 2008. While describing the movements involved, I have tried to give space to the voices of those who took part in them, that their experiences and views take priority over analysis by me or by others. Inevitably, I have faced difficult choices about which movements and campaigns to include and have left out more than I would like. At various points, the book pauses to ask, what was the role of the internet? What would have been different without it? Has it been a tool of power or counterpower, of liberation or control? The book is a snapshot of activism and the internet in a short but significant space of time.
The first chapter looks at the development of cyberactivism by the time of the economic crisis and the ways in which governments and citizens responded to that crisis. Chapter Two considers how the internet and mobile phones have threatened the powerful by the release of information, particularly through filming disputed incidents. Chapters Three, Four and Five look at recent global movements the Uncut protests, the Slutwalks, the uprisings in north Africa and the Middle East, the Indignados and the Occupy camps. Chapter Six asks how the internet helps to make small-scale campaigns more effective and how it can both empower and disempower marginalized groups. Chapter Seven explores the ways in which corporations use the net to resist protest and how activists are fighting back. Chapter Eight offers some thoughts on the future of grassroots activism in the age of the internet.
I have sought to illustrate my conclusions with examples. When writing the book, I occasionally got bogged down in theory and had to remind myself that activism is as diverse as the people who take part in it. The book does not focus on technological campaigns led by presidential candidates or the revelations of organisations such as Wikileaks, important though they are. It concentrates on the mostly unknown people who choose to stand up and unite in the face of injustice. The core principle with which I have approached the book is not a belief about the internet but a conviction about power: liberation comes from below and never from above.
The aspects of freedom and justice that we enjoy today are due to the commitment of millions of people down the centuries whose names we will never know. More freedom and greater justice will come about because of millions more people in the present and the future who choose to challenge unjust and oppressive systems. Digital Revolutions is dedicated, with thanks, to them all.