The Future of Activism on the Internet


Image courtesy of Kony 2012

“The people of the world see each other and can protect each other.  It’s turning the system upside down and it changes everything.”  So claims co-founder of Invisible Children Jason Russell in his Kony 2012 video, which was supposed to change the world.  Of course, as the Port Side’s Deborah Frempong recently reported, there have been plenty of criticisms of this effort.  I think it’s safe to say that while the video may have some influence, it’s not going to be revolutionary.

More recently, the killing of Trayvon Martin has been widely discussed over the internet and led to what is by far the most popular petition in the history of Over 2 million people have signed it, demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin.  Nevertheless, Zimmerman has yet to be arrested, and it is certainly possible that he never will be.

Given these recent disappointments, it would be easy to give up on the internet’s promise as an effective activist tool. But before coming to a conclusion, remember the internet’s previous successes and keep in mind why these two examples have so far failed to bring immediate change.

Image courtesy of One Million Hoodie March

For the Kony 2012 video, it was questionable reporting and more than questionable behavior by its director (you can’t blame the internet when your video gets 80 million views, right?).

In the Trayvon Martin case, the internet has certainly helped garner attention, but it can’t change people’s minds about a controversial issue in which every opinion is immediately labeled as either “racist” or “reverse-racist.”

To see the potential of the internet, look at the recent and effective protests of PIPA and SOPA, intellectual property bills that, if passed, would have greatly restricted online content. One explanation for the internet stepping in here is that the activist cause was itself the internet.

However, to settle for that argument alone would be to ignore the real reason bills like these usually pass. The mass protest was necessary because its supporters (while few) were more organized than its many opponents. The music industry, for instance, has way more incentive to make you buy its’ CDs than you have to upload a video of you dancing to a low quality version of one of their songs. Another intellectual property bill, deemed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” did pass because Disney cares more about selling pictures of Mickey Mouse than you care about drawing them.

A classic example of this concept occurs when oil companies overachieve in lobbying Congress because individually, they benefit more from subsidies than you lose from a small increase in taxes (or more likely, a small increase in our national debt).

The internet attempted to reverse this trend with a national gas boycott on April 15, 2011. While you don’t need to be an econ major to doubt the effectiveness of this plan, it still shows that consumers can organize much more efficiently with the help of the internet, and that there is a least the potential for corporations to lose power in Washington.

Even if you are to doubt the role of the internet in activism in the United States, look to Egypt and Iran as examples of how important it can be as a tool for mass communication. If that’s not enough, at least realize there’s a reason this couldn’t be posted in China.

Kevin O'Neill is an online contributor to the Port Side. A mathematics major at Harvey Mudd College, he spends much of his free time running and eating gummy bears.

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