Reportage

How cyber-activism changed the world

I can't thank you enough for providing the tools I've always wanted for social change. With MoveOn, I feel like I have a voice in the world and an organisation fighting for the same things that are important to me. As a working professional and mother, I don't have time to look up whom to contact on what issues. You make it possible for me to fight against the infuriating things that I see either destroying or about to destroy our country.

 

THREE YEARS BEFORE the twin towers were destroyed, three months before Bill Clinton was impeached, two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs sent an email to a hundred of their friends, born out of their frustration at the way American political life had been hijacked by drawn-out attempts to remove Clinton. The email was a call to Congress to: ‘Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the nation.' Within days, thousands had signed the online petition. By the time Congress impeached Clinton in December 1998, the organisation spawned by that email had half a million members. Ten years later, more than five million people have signed up to MoveOn.org.

The America of a decade ago now looks like another country. The kind of people power mobilised by MoveOn is just one of the reasons. MoveOn was one of the first of what was then a new phenomenon – ordinary people becoming activists and using the internet to do it. Barack Obama's success in his race for the White House was in large part due to the phenomenal social mobilisation that took place around him. Through his years working as a community organiser in Chicago, he had direct experience of the difference that grassroots action could make. In the internet age this has translated not into thousands of people mobilising behind an issue or an individual, but hundreds of thousands. Millions even. Obama was the right candidate at the right time, because in the past decade cyber-activism has taken centre stage. At the time of his presidential win, Obama's own email list of supporters stood at more than ten million, and has grown since.

MoveOn spawned GetUp! in Australia and, last year, the international Avaaz.org. These, together with thousands of specific-issue online networks, have transformed the way that individuals interact with the issues of the day and exert influence – perhaps even to the extent of changing the political process. Early last year one American online commentator wrote, ‘Is there something about this moment in history, and the medium dominating it, that suggests that progressive organizing can genuinely take power? I think so ... The tools are there. The internet, unlike the direct action organising of the 1960s and the mass medium of the time, allows for civic engagement to be a sustainable part of one's life, as well as for clear communication among small and large progressive groups and individuals ... We're part of the silent majority this time, only we're no longer silent.'

While MoveOn did not succeed in its first ambition – getting a Democrat elected to the White House in 2004 – it had a victory in 2006 when Democrats gained control of Congress. By then the MoveOn model had been imported into Australia by David Madden and Jeremy Heimans, who had seen MoveOn first hand during the 2004 campaign.

 

GETUP! WAS LAUNCHED here in August 2005, soon after the Howard government gained control of the Senate. At a time when the Senate looked like becoming a mere rubber stamp, GetUp! set out to prevent that by sooling the membership onto Coalition senators. The campaign was launched with a television ad and the slogan ‘Now You Answer to Us'. The initial plan was to prevent the passage of ideologically driven conservative legislation by pressuring Coalition backbenchers, flooding their inboxes with email. Inevitably, this was derided by government ministers as ‘spam'.

Yet it had an effect. For one, it emboldened MPs who may have had reservations about particular legislation. Three examples come to mind: the first was the RU486 campaign, the attempt by Health Minister Tony Abbott to assume the power to veto drugs, in this case, the abortion pill. A cross-party alliance of women MPs (from all parties), facilitated and publicised by GetUp! and backed up by tens of thousands of emails, stopped that legislation in its tracks. Similarly, Howard's attempt to have all asylum seekers processed offshore hit a brick wall when GetUp! mounted a campaign pointing out that that would mean putting children back in detention. One hundred thousand GetUp! members signed the petition and Howard withdrew the legislation when it became clear that Coalition MPs were prepared to cross the floor. Above Parliament House GetUp! had written in the sky, ‘Just Vote No'.

The third campaign that showed GetUp!'s ability to build a coalition across the political parties was aimed at increasing funding to the ABC. The ABC has wide support in the community and GetUp! was able to exploit that. In May 2006 it gathered more than forty thousand signatures in four days. The outcome? The best funding result for the ABC in twenty years.

It would be a mistake to think that these wins were solely due to GetUp!s's interventions, but what GetUp! does very cleverly is choose campaigns that are both dear to the hearts of progressives and winnable. It forms partnerships with groups who have been working on the issue for years, so have the knowledge and credentials, but who don't have the number of supporters that GetUp! can provide. It goes for campaigns that, for the most part, are already in the media or on which it can mount a good media campaign. Stunts and photo opportunities are very much a part of that. Not only has that ensured wide media exposure for the issue (which hopefully prompts some reaction from politicians), it has also given GetUp! itself wide exposure, which leads to more members.

The former executive director of GetUp!, Brett Solomon (who last year moved to Avaaz.org in the USA), considers GetUp!'s most important campaign was that around David Hicks. ‘Hicks was fundamental to the end of Howard. Hicks was everyone's son. A whole lot of different constituencies came together around that campaign. There was the rusted-on left, the predictable left, the radical fringe. But there was also Hanson voters, pissed off because here was another example of an Aussie bloke being abandoned by the government. Then there was the legal fraternity. Plus the Major Mori fans. David and Terry were Adelaide people, and they gathered support from South Australians in [Alexander] Downer's own corner of the country.'

Brett Solomon remembers a tabloid banner headline: ‘Howard feels the heat over Hicks'. It was one of several ‘got ya!' moments. There were a number of key moments over the years that galvanised the different elements of the resistance: in 2000, the failure of the government to apologise to Indigenous people; going to war in Iraq; the treatment of asylum seekers; the failure to sign the Kyoto protocol. Each one of these created more disaffected people ready to be mobilised by an organisation like GetUp!.

As with MoveOn, the thing that has driven people to get involved with GetUp! is frustration with the political process. At a time when the membership of political parties is tiny, where arcane preselection processes are far removed from most people, there has been a general sense of alienation from political life. GetUp! has made it possible for people to have a voice and feel they are making a contribution. The sense of apathy and alienation from the political process, which seemed endemic just a handful of years ago, has largely disappeared. Hundreds of thousands of people now feel empowered; they've seen that they can make a difference. The model has been around for several years but it was Barack Obama's use of it that made it visible to a mass audience. Everyone can now see the value of people power.

GETUP! OFFERS SUSTAINED political activity in an easy format. The ease of online activism has been the key to its success. The campaigns of course must be ones that people care about; and the politicians encouraged to take a particular line of action must believe it is worth their while. But none of this would work if it weren't easy to participate. You come into your office in the morning and a GetUp! email is in your inbox. In less than five minutes you are briefed on a pressing political or social issue, are told what needs to be done and who needs to be pressured to do it, have written a brief email in your own words (but with notes provided), sent it, donated $20 to the campaign coffers, and forwarded the material to a dozen of your nearest and dearest.

Initially most of GetUp!'s funding came from a handful of wealthy and progressive individuals, plus some union money. But with 330,000 members most of its funds now come direct from the membership. One of the things that the Obama campaign showed so effectively was the way a grassroots support base can change political funding. When millions of people give small amounts of money it frees a politician from the clutches of powerful vested interests and their lobbyists. So too with an organisation like GetUp!.

One of the differences between activists of the 1960s and 1970s and those now is age. It is no longer a youth thing – most of the new wave of online activists are over forty. Until recently only a quarter of GetUp! supporters were under thirty-four – this has now crept up to a third. Despite GetUp!'s youthful image, and the youth of its staff (the current executive director is twenty-three), this is activism for the old and crotchety, or at least cranky – the empty-nesters, the professionals and the self-employed.

One of the intentions of GetUp!'s founders was to unite the liberal middle-class and working-class unionists. Fighting Howard's industrial relations laws was held up as an important campaign, and certainly one that resonated with the broader community. Yet it is climate change rather than industrial relations which seems to have really activated the GetUp! membership. More GetUp! members belong to a professional association than to a union. And a quarter of them belong to an environmental organisation, compared with only 7 per cent of the general community.

Decisions about which issues GetUp! takes on are taken by a small core of staffers. According to one of the founders, David Madden, this structure works when the membership is in sympathy. He calls it a form of ‘radical transparency' – if the membership is not with them, then it becomes obvious very quickly. The most significant feedback for GetUp! is that from people who say they have never been involved in politics before. Madden says, ‘It's empowering for people and can lead to greater participation.'

Signing up to an email campaign is one thing, but true political involvement means getting together with other people. This aspect got underway in 2006 with hundreds of GetUp! get-togethers in people's homes around the country. Madden says this offline work was always part of the plan, ‘because people like face-to-face'. Local mobilisations were important in the lead-up to the 2007 federal elections – particularly in John Howard's Bennelong electorate, where GetUp! concentrated major resources and GetUp! members volunteered from far and wide. Since then, climate change has been the principal rallying point for the offline work. A survey in 2008 put climate change as the principal issue as far as most members were concerned.

GetUp! invested such extraordinary effort and passion into defeating the Coalition government that there was always a danger that the organisation would fall into irrelevance once this goal was achieved. That hasn't happened. It's as if, once woken, the citizenry don't want to go back to sleep. GetUp!'s membership has continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate. But the organisation will need to evolve if it is to continue to be effective. This is the challenge for the new executive director, Simon Sheikh, who took over last year. Drawing in the under twenty-fives is one of his major tasks. And it is going to involve looking at the means by which GetUp! communicates with its members. If email was the tool of the first phase of internet activism, SMS, Facebook and Twitter will be the tools of the second. According to David Madden, GetUp! uses old strategies but new technology. It's a recipe that Simon Sheikh wants to push further.

 

JUST HOW FAR can online political activism go? Has it the potential to fundamentally change the way democracy operates? Using online activism as a mechanism that brings people together, either physically or virtually, does enable people to participate more fully in the democratic process. Holding simultaneous meetings in private homes, then collating the results, staging real or virtual town hall meetings ... these activities generate a lot of energy. David Madden says that while the 2020 Summit in Canberra last year was an interesting event, it was also very old-fashioned. It would have been possible to engage more people and generate more universal interest if it had been accompanied by hundreds, or thousands, of house parties in homes across Australia. What would have been the result if tens of thousands of Australians had participated? Possible chaos, given how unwieldy it was to get even a thousand delegates to come up with coherent goals. But certainly it would have generated a wider sense of participation in the intellectual process of setting an agenda for the country.

It seems hard to believe that the internet revolution won't be accompanied by new ways of conducting this business called democracy. It would be feasible in the not-too-distant future for every citizen to vote on every piece of legislation. But that would hardly be an improvement – most people wouldn't bother and those who did might well do so with a lot of passion and too little knowledge.

California has a form of direct democracy that allows people, by direct ballot, to rescind laws or propose new laws or even remove elected officials, all bypassing the legislature and the Governor. This kind of direct democracy, whereby citizens can have a say on a whole range of matters – including, potentially, removing (or creating) laws at odds with the views of the elected representatives – is interesting but problematic. While it came about in the early twentieth century in response to corruption within the government, it has been found to be riddled with unintended consequences. In 2002, a coalition of right-wing organisations put forward a referendum that proposed that only marriage between a man and a woman be deemed legally valid in California. Proposition 22, as it became known, received majority support and became law, thus undermining decades of work by gay activists. But it was opposed by 40 per cent, thus highlighting one of the problems with direct democracy. Proposition 22 was overturned by the Supreme Court in May 2008. But it has become law again as a result of another referendum held in conjunction with the November elections, making it part of the Californian Constitution.

Direct democracy might be problematic but direct communication between citizens and elected politicians has never been so possible. And this can be effective too, particularly if politicians start to see these communications not as an onerous burden but an enormous resource. Governments now have a huge and highly educated citizenry to tap into.

GetUp!'s new executive director has ambitious plans as to where GetUp! might go from here. Sheikh sees the campaign-based actions as just the first step and expects in the next few years to see a major change in the relationship between the people and their government, brought about through the power of grassroots action. The next step for GetUp! will involve far more member-to-member communication and providing members with the tools to act on issues they care about. It will take web politics to a new level, and one that, according to Sheikh, has not yet been tried anywhere in the world. The point is not to have ten or twenty thousand GetUp! groups around the country, but to resource progressive groups that are self-organising and have a shared vision as to where they want to see the country go.

In diversifying the ways in which members can act, Sheikh is moving away from the usual debate about the effectiveness of online campaigns versus on-the-street action. He wants to see GetUp! members involved in both. The key to grassroots action, to involving and keeping new members, is not about online versus offline but about method of contact. Contacting people, particularly young people, via SMS and social networks like MySpace and Facebook will be the new growth areas. The potential to mobilise those who have not traditionally been interested in politics was demonstrated late last year when GetUp! ran a strong campaign against internet censorship. That campaign brought in tens of thousands of new members, many of them the kind of IT geeks not usually associated with progressive politics. Most have stayed on board and a significant number joined a subsequent action in support of a Human Rights Act.

For GetUp!, the next phase is about building democracy. For Simon Sheikh, growing the grassroots, involving people in a shared vision while giving them the tools to be proactive citizens, is a sure-fire way to build a progressive national agenda. And the key is getting local politicians listening to local people. He says he'll know they have succeeded when MPs start crossing the floor, because that will show politicians are listening to their constituents and not just the party bosses.

For this to happen will require more than just an expanding membership base and clever technology. The kind of inane comments endemic on many sites, including those with a progressive agenda, will drive away as many people as they attract. The quality of the engagement is at least as important as the quantity of it. Getting people communicating with one another may be a good thing but that doesn't mean it will amount to much. So any social mobilisation is going to require rigorous leadership, no matter how democratic its goals. It may be that intelligent political engagement will always be a minority sport ... Then again, a big minority is still an awful lot of people.

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