The internet is changing activism, but it has limits
This past year has unlocked the potential power of the internet as a political tool. From live video of the Arab Spring revolutions to the Facebook-organized Workers for Justice protests right here in Claremont, the internet’s capacity for rapid information-sharing across vast distances has indicated the growing power of the web in mobilizing citizens around causes.
Two particular instances in recent months highlight the power of the internet an advocacy tool. Both the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood confrontation and the protests surrounding the controversial SOPA and PIPA legislation used the internet in new and interesting ways. The ideological mobilization around these issues took place almost entirely on social media sites and political news blogs — although there were no physical marches, the rapid spread of information facilitated a mass response, highlighting the unique way in which the web is able to assist democratic movements.
Proponents of the internet are claiming that we have entered a new era of internet revolutions, but Pitzer Media Studies professor Alex Juhasz cautions against such uncritical optimism. “No one would want to argue that the new networked platforms for media expression are not useful for political expression and organizing,” said Juhasz, who teaches classes on the political uses of web platforms. “It’s patently not true, but I think that’s a very simplistic way of thinking about them. It allows us to not notice the ways that they are not serving us.”
“The hallmark platforms of Web 2.0 that are sold to us and understood as forms for democratic expression and the broadening of voice are unsuccessful at this point in what their potential radical possibilities could be,” continued Juhasz. “They are owned by corporations that have other needs than our radicalized free speech.”
Maxine Yakobi SC ‘14, a Behavioral Economics major, is also dubious about the typical narrative of the internet as a democratic forum. “To a degree I think that the government likes to make us believe that freedom of speech isn’t violated as much as it actually is,” said Yakobi, whose status as an international student gives her a more global perspective on U.S. news. “There’s definitely a huge amount of censorship that I notice when I’m looking at news.”
However, despite censorship and corporate ownership of social media platforms and news sources, the internet can still be used to promote transparency in politics that is crucial to the democratic process. Sam Stone CMC ’14, manages a website called “Redistricting in America” through the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna. The website aims to clarify the redistricting process, which redraws the borders of congressional districts for often political reasons.
“It’s really important to have the internet, not only because it makes it possible for everyone to get access to this process, but you can make it interactive,” said Stone. “In general having the internet as a resource is incredibly powerful in improving political transparency. Thanks to the internet, it’s a lot easier for the public to understand and evaluate the process.”
For Stone, the internet offers an opportunity to spread and gather political information. “I think it’s fantastic having not just the internet but social media in particular to be able to spread political commentary or analysis or information,” Stone said. Like many college students, Stone uses Facebook and Twitter to pass along information and share his own political opinions.
Juhasz, however, is critical of the wide dispersal of political ideas. “One of the big myths about internet communication is that the more people that hear you the better, there’s some sort of un-thought through premium on numbers,” said Juhasz. “Lots of people are talking. That doesn’t mean anyone’s listening and it doesn’t mean what you’re saying has any effect. There’s this illusory feeling of having participated by speaking. When one is attempting to be political, it is not just that your opinion is expressed, it’s that after your opinion is expressed something happens.” The viral “Kony 2012” video that sprang up online a few weeks ago aims to do just this: turn talk into action. But whether the actions that the campaign promotes — to donate to Invisible Children and make Joseph Kony a household name — will actually help lead to his arrest is controversial.
Juhasz discourages thinking of the internet as a democratic end in itself, instead viewing it as part of a total experience that results in political action on the ground. “We have to keep our fingers on the pulse of the world and think about the ways these technologies buttress, effect, contribute to, augment, and alter behaviors that we’ve already had as human beings, but ultimately come back to that pulse.”