Saturday, 8 January 2011

Netroots UK and the limits of 'online activism'

My Twitter feed was filled today with assorted people reporting from the Netroots conference at TUC headquarters in London. The event's distinctive quality is its emphasis on 'online activism' in opposing the cuts, i.e. the role of the internet and in particular social media (which mainly means Twitter and Facebook) in the movement.

Harpymarx and The Third Estate have already done a commendable job of outlining some problems with the conference. These include its political weaknesses: it is dominated by the moderate Left, with keynote speakers including the likes of Polly Toynbee, and Sunny Hundal (editor of Liberal Conspiracy) declaring that activists must tone down their arguments if they want to win public approval.

The event is modelled on an American initiative linked to Obama's presidential campaign. In a sense it's built on a 'professionalised' notion of activism, with those in media or conventional (likely Westminster) political circles given prominence.

There's a few points I'd like to add about this vogue for claiming 'online activism' is transforming political protest. It goes without saying that I take the Net seriously - I'm a blogger, a member of Counterfire's editorial team, and use Facebook and Twitter as political tools all the time. It's worth stressing, too, that I have equally strong objections to those on the left who largely dismiss the internet.

But there's increasingly a loss of perspective on the role of online activity and a failure to understand how it is linked to other media and to real-world political activity.

1. Let's recall the TV coverage of the Millbank mass occupation on 10 November. Remember how that electrified the movement? It's a huge factor in explaining why tens of thousands of school and college students protested on 24 November, the first Day X national day of walkouts and protests.

This illustrates the role of old media (TV) in aiding the movement's development. A great deal of attention has, correctly, been paid to Facebook's role in organising and publicising the Day X protests, but commentators have almost enitrely overlooked the vital part played by TV coverage. It's also worth recalling that several newspapers have effectively promoted the protests by running 'what the protestors plan next'-style articles in advance of each day of action. Something similar happened with the most recent UK Uncut day of action.

2. There's a tendency to forget how dependent the effectiveness of 'new media' remains on 'old media'. Why does Jon Snow have so many Twitter followers? Because he presents Channel 4 News. Why is Paul Mason's blog popular? Because he's Newsnight's economics editor (he's also a good and perceptive writer, but if he wasn't on telly he'd get only a fraction of those hits).

Why has Laurie Penny got 10,000 Twitter followers? Partly hard graft and exceptional writing ability, but it helps to get platforms at The Guardian and New Statesman.

The point is that coverage, or a platform, in the established media underpins a lot of the success of online media. An obvious example: the biggest left-of centre blogs, like Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward, get a lift from their editors or contributors being featured as pundits on radio programmes, offered occasional Guardian columns and quoted in newspapers.

There's an inevitable political bias here, with more moderate voices from the blogosphere gaining greater opportunities than those to their left. It's also worth keeping in mind when some commentators use phrases like 'non-hierarchical' - in fact we're not all equal online.

3. It remains the case that any amount of online activity can never be enough. Such activities as stalls, flyering, door-knocking etc remain vital. UK Uncut has rightly been celebrated for using social media extensively in promoting anti-tax avoidance protests. But loose online networks only take you so far. Face-to-face meetings and democratic structures are essential.

Twitter is great for having a proliferation of ideas from a diverse range of people. But where is the decision-making mechanism in Twitter? There's no way of actually reaching a decision about anything - that still, for the most part, requires democratic, face-to-face planning meetings, student assemblies and conferences. And it's better if this decision-making is open and transparent, with accountability of those elected to take on roles and responsibilities, rather than a mysterious and hidden process.

4. The advocates of 'decentralised networks' fail to grasp the realities of building protest movements. Actually, to some extent they do get it, but there's a divergence between theory and practice. This is summed up in the opening paragraph of Clifford Singer's Guardian article:

'Last month, the anti-tax-dodging campaign UK Uncut tweeted: "Could the organisers of the Taunton action this Sat please get in touch? Many thanks." Theorists talk of how new technology has facilitated decentralised, non-hierarchical, horizontal networks. Well this, in less than 140 characters, is what such a network looks like.'

Can he not see the irony in that? The UK Uncut Twitter account is an example of centralism. So is the Facebook page. And the website.

The example cited here is not 'decentralised' at all - it is precisely an example of people recognising the need for co-ordination, with centralised means of communication playing a key role. There's nothing 'non-hierarchical' and 'horizontal' about a central, co-ordinating Twitter account requesting information from local organisers in order to disseminate that information more widely (and collate it with lots of other local actions).

None of this should detract from the genuine value in using social media, blogs etc to help build resistance to the cuts. In today's world a website is far more likely than a weekly newspaper to be the hub around which you can build an effective organisation, campaign or movement.

Just let's not get carried away by the overblown rhetoric and dubious theorising - and remember that building a mass anti-cuts movement is going to require a whole range of skills, methods and technologies.


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