Could Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck have been thrown off the air without the Internet? It is a critical question for anyone who wants to know whether the Web will stoke or dampen campaigns of nonviolent activism in the 21st century.
Glenn Beck was dumped by Fox News in the summer of 2011, two years after he charged that President Obama held a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” The remark prompted the group ColorofChange.org to wage a boycott, collecting more than 285,000 petition signatures and transmitting thousands of letters of concern to brand-sensitive advertisers, more than 300 of which abandoned Beck's show.
The removal from CNN of Lou Dobbs, a leading spokesperson for the anti-immigration movement, was even swifter and more decisive. An online coalition lead by Presente.org launched the campaign “BastaDobbs,” warning CNN that it would alienate Latino viewers if it continued backing the anchor. Using social media, Presente.org distributed a video composed of clips in which Dobbs claimed Latinos were dangerous, prone to criminality, and even carriers of leprosy. It was viewed more than 155,000 times in English and Spanish. Activists also gathered in excess of 100,000 online signatures and, at the end of their campaign, virtually took over CNN's community journalism site, iReport, with a “digital sit-in” that could post 400 petitioner comments there every day—nearly as much content as the site received daily from its regular users. On November 11, 2009, just two months after the pressure began to build, Dobbs announced an abrupt departure from CNN.
The drives to oust Beck and Dobbs illustrate how powerful Internet activism can be. But does this mean the Web can usher in the next revolution, as its most enthusiastic proponents claim? How much of the potential attributed to online organizing is real, and how much is hype?
For almost as long as the Web has existed, boosters have said that it would redefine the process of creating social change. From Iran to Egypt to Wall Street, each new outbreak of mass resistance is breathlessly labeled a “Twitter Revolution,” a “Facebook Uprising,” or an example of Revolt 2.0.
These notions have drawn criticism, however. Belarusian author Evgeny Morozov has persistently pointed to the flaws in “techno-utopian” thinking, warning that dictatorships use online social networks to monitor dissidents.
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is another prominent naysayer. In a hotly debated 2010 article, he argued that the high-risk activism that truly alters the status quo—such as the daring lunch-counter sit-ins of civil rights era—requires strong bonds of trust among its participants. In contrast, he contended, social media creates networks of “weak ties” that pose little threat to those in power.
“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” Gladwell wrote.
Critics such as Morozov and Gladwell are right to recognize the importance of action facilitated by strong interpersonal relationships. People who engage in strategic nonviolence allow their everyday lives to be disrupted—committing acts that often require significant risk and entail real personal costs. They risk embarrassment by speaking out in a public meeting to confront an exploitative corporate executive, or their jobs by joining striking coworkers on a picket line. They risk arrest by chaining themselves to a bulldozer, or physical abuse by protesting in a public plaza in the presence of riot police who are too often willing to use force even on peaceful crowds.
“Clicktivism” is the opposite of that. It is online action you can take on your laptop without getting up from the comfiest chair in your living room. Doubts about its effectiveness appeal to our common experience: How many of us have signed an email petition and then wondered, “Is this doing anything?” Or, “Is this even being delivered?”
“I Had No Idea You Were Here”
But the Internet isn't a replacement for the lunch-counter sit-in, say activists immersed in the world of online campaigning. It is a new tool that supplements traditional face-to-face interactions.
The Web provides a way to reach people who lack other avenues for getting involved. “We have to be aware that there are a large number of people who are not otherwise civically engaged [but] who spend hours every day at a computer,” says Jodeen Olgu’n-Tayler, field director for Caring Across Generations.
Moreover, because of the Web, activists no longer depend on the mainstream media to document both acts of protest and oppression. “It used to be that police could attack a totally nonviolent crowd and say, 'Oh, they attacked us first,'” explains Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Franciso and an expert on nonviolent movements. “If everybody has a cell-phone camera that shows what really happened, that's a significant change. And now, even in authoritarian countries, you have technologies so that you can upload that almost instantly.”
Nor are online and offline strategies mutually exclusive. MoveOn, while best known for its online petition drives, has long experimented with in-person action—calling together candlelight vigils, holding house meetings, and forming community councils. In 2003, such activity took place in the context of organizing against the impending war in Iraq, an issue that was also motivating mass demonstrations and widespread acts of civil disobedience.
“There were people in smaller communities who, in many cases, were the only person they knew who opposed the war,” says Noah T. Winer, who previously served as a campaign director at MoveOn and now consults with social change groups about online activism. “The only way they found people they could organize with was that they signed a petition online and then were invited to attend an event that someone in their town was actually organizing. They would find someone who might live two blocks from them and who felt the same way about the war, and they'd say, 'I had no idea you were here.'”
“It's funny when people characterize online organizing as armchair activism for couch potatoes,” Winer adds. “Because there are so many people who would have just been sitting in their living rooms yelling at their TVs about the war. Instead, they found places to go and take action.”
A Ladder of Engagement
Denunciations of “clicktivism” miss how the movement has critiqued itself. Online campaigners increasingly focus on moving people up the rungs of what organizers call the “ladder of engagement”—from a first contact on email or Facebook to attending a protest, to volunteering to organize an event, to eventually becoming an activist leader.
During the Lou Dobbs boycott, traditional organizing supplemented online activism. Presente.org was relatively small when it launched BastaDobbs, with an online membership base of around 25,000. But more than 30 partner organizations—immigrant rights groups such as CASA de Maryland and the Florida Immigrant Coalition—brought credibility to the effort and sent their members to in-person events, such as protests at advance screenings of CNN's Latino in America.
“When it launched, the campaign had a real grounding,” thanks to the offline partners, says Ian Inaba of the Citizen Engagement Lab. “That allowed the press to pick it up right away.” At the same time, he contends, “It wouldn't have been able to reach the scale that it did so quickly and effectively if it wasn't leveraging the Internet.”
“The combination of online and offline organizing,” he says, “really brought the power of the community to bear.”