In the wake of the widespread website blackouts in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the consequential dismissal of said act, the concept of Internet activism has come into the public eye. The Internet is fast becoming the catalyst for political and social movements across the globe, and this relatively new means of expression allows for the public and private involvement of the largest amount of people of any activist movement ever.
The key to any movement is widespread knowledge, and that’s something the internet can provide. In the age where social media and sitting in front of a lit screen for hours becomes the new norm in human communication, it becomes less difficult to get people’s attention. Last week, with various popular websites like Reddit and Wikipedia blacking out in protest, 4.5 million Internet users signed an anti-SOPA petition and 18 senators withdrew their support of the bill. The Internet is the new picket line and, if used correctly, can be the most effective tool for social progress since the written word.
“The one downfall to online activism is that, without proper follow-up, it can be pretty ineffective in swaying its target audiences,” political activist Monica Christoffels said. “No one’s going to care about a bunch of names in a list — you have to connect those names to real people who want to see accountability. I’ve heard straight out of politicians’ mouths that the best way for constituents to make change is to speak to their representatives as directly as possible; anything less is too easy to ignore.”
Christoffels first encountered cyber-activism in 2009 during the Iranian presidential elections.
“The Internet provides the advantage of watching events and getting news updates in real time, allowing everyone a sort of first- or second-hand account of an event or issue,” Christoffels said. “It provides opportunities to take part in something outside of your community and vice versa.”
And thus, we encounter the biggest asset and the biggest threat of the online activist. From the comfort of our homes, we can speak our mind, boycott a product, learn about a cause and stand beside a fellow activist halfway across the world. The Internet is an unstoppable powerhouse of ideals and participation.
When Internet access was cut off in Egypt to lessen the organization power of Egyptian protestors early last year, Google and Twitter launched services that allowed Egyptians to post news online via phones and voice-to-text software. In late 2011, the Internet spread the word about “Bank Transfer Day,” leading to an $80 million transfer from big banks to credit unions in one day. The simple act of joining a Facebook group or subscribing to a YouTube channel is an expression of activism.
The Internet generation is one of continuous movement, and more often than not, has just as many pieces on the board as its opponents. The introduction of the hack group “Anonymous” highlights this reckless and principle-driven outlook, showing without a shadow of a doubt that online activists can and will fight back.
Last week, when the federal government forced the shutdown of massive file storage website Megaupload for copyright infringement and other charges, Anonymous immediately went into action. The U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of American websites were crashed within hours of the Megaupload take-down.
Whether this helped or exacerbated the issue remains to be seen. Megaupload was a ticking time bomb of illegal activities, and its takedown was not as shocking as some would believe. Widespread Internet activism seems far more effective than the specialized brand of activism Anonymous and copycat groups provide, regardless of their good intentions. But acts like these show that, in the Internet realm, the government and the activists have similar weapons to choose from.
“(Anonymous) demonstrated that the government probably couldn’t win a cyber war if it tried,” Christoffels said. “In this arena, the people are too strong to be overpowered.”
In the end, that strength is what will bring the new age of activism almost completely online. No, the physical march and sign wielding outside of government buildings will never go away — nor should it. But lawmakers and protesters alike are moving their fights to a more digital realm, where both the degree and consequences of movements will change drastically.