Not the G8 – digital activism in Leeds

I am on a train that’s just pulled out of Leeds, following a great day at ‘Not the G8’, a conference run by the World Development Movement (WDM).

I was there because WDM invited me to speak at a session on digital activism. But I’m really glad they did, because the whole event was very good and I learnt a lot.

The day included a really helpful talk about food sovereignty by the writer Raj Patel. I have realised recently that WDM are very good at drawing the links between different issues – poverty, the environment, banking. In particular, they make clear that environmentalism is not simply a lifestyle choice for the middle class in the West but is an urgent concern for anyone who wants to tackle poverty.

I was asked to give a talk based partly on my new book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age. As usual, I Iearnt at least as much from the participants as they did from me.

At these sort of events, I fear that the attenders will expect me to be some sort of technological whizzkid, with answers to all sorts of questions about computer use. Anyone who’s watched me struggle to get my DVD player working will know that I am not that person. My book is not a book about technology; it’s a book about activism. It looks at the ways in which the internet has been used for activism in recent years.

I am not a net utopian – technology won’t save the world. Nor am I someone who dismisses the usefulness of the internet. Digital activism is an important part of many campaigns. It can also draw people into other forms of resistance. But digital activism is almost never sufficient on its own. When talking today, I focussed on examples of campaigns that have effectively combined online and offline activism. Examples include:

  • Tax justice campaigners who petitioned Olympic sponsors online to give up their tax exemptions at the Olympic Park. Several companies quickly agreed, probably because they feared physical occupations – which had greeted many tax-dodging stores the previous year.
  • Boycott Workfare, who have persuaded dozens of companies and charities in the UK to withdraw from workfare schemes. Some withdrew after physical protests and economic pressure. Others withdrew when bombarded with tweets and faced with humiliation online.
  • Disabled activists in York, who found a provision that required the City Council to debate any petition with over 1,000 signatures from York residents. Their petition and the council debate meant that cuts to local disability services became the lead news item on BBC Radio York – making many more people aware of them.
  • Lovers of peace in Israel and Iran, who set up “Israel Loves Iran” and “Iran Loves Israel”, two Facebook pages that built understanding across the divide and allowed Israeli and Iranian citizens to tell both their governments that they were “not ready to die in your war”.
  • Minority language activists as far apart as Wales, east Africa, Australia and south Asia, who use web-based resources to promote linguistic diversity and the rights of their communities.
  • The paradox of the Occupy movement, which combined the modern image of web-based communication with the old-fashioned image of debates in public squares. Both of them, at their best, are far more inclusive than mainstream political processes.

I was delighted that so many people got stuck into discussion about these issues. As my book has not long been published, this was on the second time that I’ve given a talk based around it. I will be doing so again at the Greenbelt festival in August. However, I’m very open to speaking with other groups. If you’re interested you’re welcome to email me at symonhill@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you!

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My book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be bought from the publisher, New Internationalist, by clicking here. It costs £9.99 (0r $16.95 in the US). 

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