Being an Internet Activist: A New Era for Collective Mobilization

The internet won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. We must embrace its potential in activist politics, and avoid rejecting it at face value.

internet-activism-debateIt is traditionally believed that if a collective mobilization movement wants to achieve success, it must earn recognition through active displays of their demands in the public sphere. In this, location considered key. A striking labor union, for instance, might launch a demonstration on a busy street, thus bypassing potential bias that can occur through the filter of mainstream media.

With the advent of the Internet and rise of social media, it is hard to deny that much of what previously occupied the “public sphere” has now been moved online, and information on current affairs is more direct-from-the-source than ever.

“Location” can mean nothing more than a vague aggregation of websites and chat rooms. A poignant flyer shared on a social network can easily and rapidly garner millions of views, whereas that same flyer posted on a real world signpost might only attract a few hundred passing glances. Collective mobilization, the way in which the grassroots can bypass elite politics in solidarity towards a common goal, has changed forever.

But what should we make of this shift, perhaps humanity’s most important communications revolution since the printing press?

Viewpoints are many, and often conflicting. Joe Rivers of the New Statesman takes the “slacktivism” approach, arguing that internet activism rarely succeeds in any meaningful way, and through our newfound dependency on it, we in the developed world have lost our ability to challenge government injustices. On the other hand, Fran Berkman of Mashable holds a more optimistic perspective, calling internet activism a “gateway drug” to further political involvement for millions who might have never spoken out otherwise.

These two contrasting views actually share common ground: Internet activism itself won’t solve all our problems. However, its potential, when combined with tangible real-world action, is tremendous.

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Consider the uprising in Egypt, where online social networks were central in getting the word out about demonstrations and repressive regime tactics. While those who occupied Tahrir Square did so as citizens and not internet users, the occupation was catalyzed by the unprecedented communication accessibility the internet has granted everyday people.

One thing that’s for certain is the internet won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. We must therefore embrace its potential in activist politics, and avoid rejecting it at face value. Mobilizers who can successfully harness the momentum of online activism and channel it into the formal political process will surely find in the internet a very, very powerful ally.

Max Honigmann is a third year Political Science student at McGill University in Montreal. Max is especially interested in civil liberties, intelligence, and international relations-related issues. Follow him on Twitter @maxhonigmann. Read other articles by Max.