Although I often find myself a bit cynical about all the delights of the internet age, I also find myself strangely compelled to defend it when attacks on it get out of hand.
The internet has become a very handy punching bag for some people who think it represents everything that is wrong with society.
One recent example was a Guardian article which took aim at online activism. The author’s argument was that the ‘soul’ of activism had somehow been tainted because of the alliance between online activism and ‘the logic of the marketplace.’ He is not alone in this. I have frequently heard criticism along these lines – that facebook groups, online petitions and internet-driven campaigns in general are an attack on the ideals of the ‘old-school activism’.
There are obvious problems with online activism- it is true that facebook groups for example are evidently not the most reliable way of driving issues forward and one cannot easily tell whether the members will make any effective contributions, whether monetary or otherwise.
Yes, such online activism can be a way for people to pretend to be moral without actually doing anything about it. It can be lazy and manipulative and provide an easy way for people to take the moral high ground they don’t deserve.
But let me challenge many of the core assumptions of this kind of argument. The most baffling is that idea that using the ‘ideology of marketing’ is incompatible with genuine activism. This would make sense only if you think the market is inherently evil.
The Guardian article for example sneers at the idea that marketing and advertising can build social movements. The question is- why not? Of course they can. If you oppose that approach in moral terms, then you would have to prove why the market is so evil that it is not fit to transmit the ideals of a typical activist campaign.
However if you have no qualms with using such tactics to get the message out, then it seems to me that the internet is a valuable tool. If we take awareness as a starting point, then nothing works as well as the digital highway.
Even facebook groups get the word out with devastating effectiveness. Once the campaign gets going, the real activists will be separated from the others. Clicks and numbers may tell only part of the story, but they are still important metrics.
There is no practical or logical reason why this approach can be dismissed so readily. Part of the problem I think is that people assume- like The Guardian does- that sheer numbers and clicks are the only yardsticks used by many campaigns. I think this is completely inaccurate.
It is certainly wrong to claim as some do that marketing is replacing activism and removing its’ substance. And-as with the response to the 2006 Tsunami that hit Asia showed- the internet can play an absolutely crucial role.
But what really gets to me is that this kind of criticism of the internet often reveals a kind of holier-than-thou snobbery from people who see many aspects of modernity as automatically artificial and immoral. There is no reason why idealism and compassion can’t harness the power of the internet.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer