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Community action goes global on the net
Mike Slocombe, a web activist, shows how direct-action sites have a lot to teach the government about using the internet to canvass support.
From the New Statesman 18th Dec 2000,
The internet can be a real leveller. A heavyweight corporate can fork out millions of pounds serving up a glossy, caring image online only to find their efforts instantly undermined by a host of pesky websites lambasting their products and working practices.
In the past, corporates could safely ignore such irritations, content in the knowledge that even the best efforts of under funded campaign groups could easily be glossed over by their slick advertising campaigns. But things have changed.
Now it only takes a handful of committed activists to make the whole world aware of dodgy government actions, environmental cover-ups and corporate malpractices.
Potential customers typing 'Nestle' into a major search engine may be surprised to find not only a link to the official website, but a selection of sites detailing global campaigns against their products. And it's the same story for the likes of McDonalds, Nike, Shell, Gap and Coca Cola.
While these sites may be put together on a shoestring budget with often rather basic presentation, their very existence can alert people to campaigns that rarely get publicity in mainstream media.
And for many, therein lies the real appeal of the web. In a society where sophisticated advertisers use almost unlimited budgets to convince us of their 'brand values' and squeaky clean image, the Internet remains a place where big money doesn't always guarantee influence or control and activists have been quick to capitalise on this freedom.
Arguably, the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill in 1995 was the first time the internet really surfaced as a powerful tool for activists in the UK.
Despite targeting disparate minority cultures such as road campaigners, ravers, squatters and even football fans, the Bill had only succeeded in getting those groups talking to each other - and it didn't take too long for them to realise how useful the internet could be to their movement.
The Internet suddenly opened up the possibility for campaigners to easily share information, pool resources and plan protests, using a quickly established network of links to affiliated sites, mailing lists, newsgroups and chat rooms.
As globalisation becomes a major focus for the growing anti-capitalism movement, the Internet is also proving to be the perfect tool for reporting on the issues and coordinating truly global protest.
The recent demonstrations against the IMF meeting in Prague in September this year were extensively coordinated over the Internet, with pre-planned solidarity protests taking place in 45 cities in over 20 countries.
And campaigners are now working to make sure it's not just the corporate media version of events that appears in the news. Groups like indymedia.org have set up mobile news centres at the heart of major protests, using local journalists and reporters to stream the action live over the Internet, providing more in depth coverage than the likes of CNN and the BBC.
Many direct action websites are run on a tiny budget yet attract huge traffic rates - sites like urban75.com and the anti-McDonalds mcspotlight.com attract thousands of readers every day.
While campaigners have been quick to embrace the Internet, governments have, predictably, been lamentably slow to even understand its possibilities .
While there's thousands of sites out there buzzing with political arguments, discussions and debates, none of the sites for the UK's main political parties trouble themselves with the tools that make the web such a powerful tool of interactive communication: there's no bulletin boards, no chat rooms, no live forums and no means of directly engaging elected representatives online.
In fact, just finding the present government on the web can be a challenge in itself. By the time Labour had woken up to Internet revolution all the obvious domain names like labour.com, labour.org and labour.co.uk had long been snapped up by unrelated, money making enterprises (Labour can now be found at the rather less snappy labour.org.uk).
Even as basic resources most of the major political party websites fall flat. Trying to find out more about the Tories very own 'Criminal Justice Act' on their own website produced no results, while the SNP's front page headline declaring 'today's news' was three days out of date.
Plaid Cymru rudely insisted that I change the resolution of my monitor just to read their site (dedicating a whole page to the procedure), while Labour's news listing of 'top lines of the day' was totally bereft of content.
You would have thought that politicians would be falling over themselves to encourage interaction with potential, but in the current climate of spin, spin and more spin, perhaps it comes as no surprise to find nothing more than just a shiny manifesto being offered.
Politicians have managed to turn a new, exciting, interactive and involving way of debating and discussing political ideas into a dull, one way affair which runs contrary to the very spirit of the web.
No wonder the direct action websites are so popular.