INTRODUCTION TO ONLINE ACTIVISM


As the citizens of emerging democracies are discovering, casting a vote every few years changes little, if all you succeed in doing, is replacing Tweedledee with Tweedledum – one corrupt politician with another. What makes a democracy vibrant, is if people see the system as an effective alternative to violence, if they can find and use peaceful avenues to solving serious problems. As an activist, your mission is to develop and utilize such avenues to address the pressing needs of society. Christ, Mohammed, Martin Luther King, Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are some distinguished activists you can learn from. Now, how do you go about this?


A budding activist would find in "Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990s" by Bobo, Kendall and Max, Midwest Academy, an excellent primer. The authors define 3 Principles of Direct Action:

Make effective, concrete improvements in people's lives

This standard principal tells you how to pick an issue -- something that will get people worked up enough to join you, at the same time, it forces you to break down a large or long-term goal into quickly achievable objectives. If your objective is a complex one, you must be able to reduce the abstract principle to concrete instances of how it impacts daily life. For instance, when Aruna Roy and others fought for Freedom of Information in Rajasthan, they explained to poor people, that the government does indeed spend a lot of money in development, which mostly doesn’t reach its destination: freedom of information would give citizens the ability to find out where the money got lost. “Nothing succeeds like success,” people say, so, to start with, pick an issue where the government is blatantly wrong, in a manner that seriously affects the people. Examples of such issues are unfortunately not at all hard to find.

Awaken people to the sense of their own power

This is to say: don't take shortcuts such as "bringing in a lawyer to handle the problem, asking a friendly politician to take care of it, or turning it over to a government agency." Try to make the system work, rather than bypass it. That way, you make it easier for other people facing similar problems, you open and develop avenues for social change. The Japanese have worked hard on the concept of quality, and how it might be applied not just to manufacturing, but in daily life as well. They say, “Fix the process, and the product will fix itself.” If you manufacture a defective component, people without quality consciousness simply fix it and carry on. The quality approach, on the other hand, is to try to understand what allowed a defective part to be made in the first place, and to fix the process. If such problems are chronic, what you will need to do is build an institution, or at least the capacity for ongoing work. And that leads to

Alter the relations of power

Once you have an organisation that works effectively, the government or multinationals that you are fighting against will need to take you into account in their decision-making. In other words, work on the *process* brings longer-term benefits than merely focussing on the immediate problem, as it allows you to nip problems in the bud.

This is wisdom accumulated over generations of activists, who organized effectively, even without all the benefits of the Internet. Online activism is an area that has only recently started to get attention. Activists, who see far more basic problems like hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy and exploitation all around them, have not always appreciated its strategic importance. What is increasingly being realized, though, is that the Internet can not only play a significant role in tackling these pressing problems, it has the potential of fundamentally changing the balance of power in society.


The Internet helps activists save costs in collecting and distributing information, in finding like-minded people to support their cause, training them, and in raising funds for the purpose. People in remote areas can almost as effectively participate in e-mail discussions as those at headquarters. Increasingly, as the medium itself becomes cheaper to access and more multimedia in nature, it opens up to larger segments of society. Poor people might finally have a way to directly tell the world of their plight, without needing educated intermediaries to speak for them.

In online activism, you have new ways to organise, and the advantage of easy access to the media. As an example, when in 1994, the Indian government woke up to the potential of data communications, it reacted in a manner that can only be called wierd. First, it imposed a license fee of Rs. 15 lakhs per annum on Bulletin Board Services (BBS), which were electronic notice boards that students and young professionals ran, mostly for free. Indian BBS users came together on a unique online platform. That was the time Fidonet started in India, a cooperative data exchange between BBSes over phone lines late at night. This meant that a message posted in Delhi would reach Mumbai later that night, Calcutta the following, and the users there mostly the following day. A reply from Calcutta typically took a week from the date of posting, but it was all free. We used this facility to start a public posting area, called a Fidonet echo, named the Forum for Rights to Electronic Expression (FREE). This electronically mediated group took up this issue with the Indian government, and managed to find media interest. A few months thereafter, the government removed BBSes from licensing requirements.

Later that year,the government attempted to close Ernet down, then the only ISP available to Indian educational and research institutions, and to a limited number of enthusiasts like me. Once again the members of FREE became active, and organised, together with Ernet employees of the governments’ Department of Electronics, a mailing list called sos@doe.ernet.in . We also alerted our journalist friends, who started making phone calls to concerned senior government officials for confirmation: was India really going to be wiped off the cyberspace map? This time, the government changed its mind in a matter of days.

Both were issues that immediately and concretely affected people’s lives. During the BBS incident, we learnt how to approach the media, and to couch our story in words that laypersons could understand. We took on the Department of Telecommunications head on, we didn’t try to find a friend in the ministry. This experience came in handy when Ernet was threatened, in which the media took up the story much sooner.

Indeed, one area in which online activists can learn from their conventional bretheren, is how to involve the media. But education must flow in the other direction as well. Far too many progressive young people get glazed eyes when technology is mentioned. The Internet is fundamentally changing our lives, upending power structures, pushing entire industries, such as letter mail, publishing, telephony, and music distribution, into niches, capturing huge market shares in these fields, while restructuring revenue models in other industries. Like the industrial revolution, this one is technology-driven too, and effective participation in the debate requires you to be technology-savvy.

While TV is very important, its images are fleeting. If you don’t happen to be watching at the exact instant the important information flashes past, you lose it. Consequently, the newspaper and news magazine influence political thinking far more effectively. An essential skill for the online activist, therefore, is the ability to write English well. Unfortunately, with fewer books in the hands of young people these days, this skill is in short supply. Fortunately, progress in Internet technology is providing an exciting alternative: it is now able to transmit better quality voice than conventional telephony, at much lower cost. Audio conferencing now works brilliantly on the Net, as is demonstrated by sites such as paltalk.com. The significance of this should not be underestimated.

Firstly, audio conferencing is immediate: if there is an emergency of some sort, e-mail might be too slow for activists to organise some counter action. Then again, for teaching newcomers the skills they need to become effective activists, text isn’t enough: you need to be heard by them, while showing them slides or web-pages that illustrate what you say. To address these requirements, we have created suitable audio conferencing space at indataportal.com, a facility which is available free of cost to deserving projects.

Another very important reason why the ability to converse over long distances is important in organizing, is that this is how we communicate best. As Victor Zue put it “Speech is natural--we know how to speak before we know how to read and write. Speech is also efficient--most people can speak about five times faster than they can type and probably 10 times faster than they can write. And speech is flexible--we do not have to touch or see anything to carry on a conversation.” Not just people who cannot read or write at all, even those who are literate, typically spend most of their day communicating orally.

Audio communication is far more democratic than written. Writing skills are very unevenly distributed, and few write well. As opposed to this, the human race is filled with people who are powerful oral communicators, from politicians and singers to hawkers on the street. The egalitarian nature of oral communication was well brought home during President Clinton’s recent visit to a milk-cooperative in Rajasthan. When listening to Shakuntala Devi, a poor but highly vocal member of the cooperative, that master communicator was moved to exclaim,” I want you to tell her that she would be elected anywhere!” Arguably, this is the highest compliment a politician can pay.

The only telecommunications device a poor person can afford, is a radio. As such, audio is the only way to effectively reach the vast majority of the country. Unfortunately, in both India and Pakistan, access to radio is highly restricted. We still seem to be governed by a World War II mentality, where we imagine spies huddled over their transmitters in the attic. These days, a spy wishing to send information across the border has it much easier: he simply walks into a cybercafe, and sends mail to a Hotmail address, with his secret message hidden in a photograph of a filmstar. Why on earth would he risk getting caught using a transmitter?

Short-range FM stations, the kind that would service a village, can be set up for as little as Rs. 20,000. Why should security considerations be used to prevent communication among villagers living far away from any border? The other fear that our governments seem to have, is that such transmitters might be used to spread rumors. My answer to that is that I would rather have people say these things on the air, where everyone can hear them, and possibly provide them evidence to the contrary, than let them be spread in whispers along back alleys, where we have no idea what lies are being spread. In keeping with their basic mandate of widening the avenues of access to electronic communication, online activists must pay attention to this solitary means of reaching the poor.

Until the ban on community radio stations is lifted, an option that activists have is the use of the Worldspace Asiastar satellite. The United Nations have been allowed two channels on this satellite, on which NGOs can apply for broadcast time. However, a disadvantage of this model is the high cost of receivers, around Rs. 5000 being the cheapest. With a little incentive, maybe cable TV operators could be persuaded to install such receivers and distribute radio content along with video on their cables, which would cost little. Of course, neighbourhood radio stations could easily be started at premises close to the head-end of the Cable TV operator, and legally distributed throughout such a network.

Another area that online activists need to urgently address, is the ban on Internet telephony in both countries. Internet telephony is about an order of magnitude cheaper than conventional telephony. It is also far more reliable, transmits better quality sound, and is amenable to being combined with text chat, web pages , video, etc. With the increased usage of wireless broadband using 802.11b for community networking, TCP-IP may be the only bandwidth that many poor people receive access to. Not allowing Internet telephony is tantamount to denying them free speech, and effective access to distance education. From a corporate perspective, the ban is forcing the telecommunications majors to invest in equipment that will be outdated in 2-3 years.

For young people with some interest in technology, and in the world surrounding them, online activism is an easy way to combine these inclinations. Ultimately, though, a good bureaucrat is also an activist, as is a good manager, for these are people that make things happen. Activism, therefore, should be part of the education of every student. Of course, there is today no better place to learn activistm, than online.



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