Become an armchair activist

Online technology gives protesters real power to change the status quo - without taking to the streets. Danny Bradbury signs up

The next time you get an electronic petition in your e-mail inbox, think twice about passing it on. Other than making you feel better, does sending it to 10 friends make any difference? Is anyone going to read it?

The next time you get an electronic petition in your e-mail inbox, think twice about passing it on. Other than making you feel better, does sending it to 10 friends make any difference? Is anyone going to read it?

Online activism is changing. A new generation of campaigners is using technology in innovative ways to further social change or voice their dissent. Some initiatives, such as file-sharing copyrighted material, are legal - others are not - but all of them go some way towards creating an atmosphere for change. So, rather than forwarding chain mail, in what other ways can socially minded internet users take part?

Sign that petition anyway

While e-mail petitions may not be worth the paper they're written on, not everyone agrees that electronic petitions are pointless. Randy Paynter, the founder of Care2 ( www.care2.com), a for-profit company that runs a four million-member on-line network for activists, believes that web-based petitions hosted on the firm's thepetitionsite.com, can make a difference. "We built the thepetitionsite.com in response to those e-mail petition chains that were having no impact," he says. "We wanted those letters to be used in a powerful way." Petitions from the site have yielded results in the past, he says, and that they are valuable as an awareness-raising mechanism for "light greens" on the sidelines of activist communities.

Become a smart boycotter

Another option for armchair activists is KarmaBanque, the index site for the smart boycotter that helps people voice their concerns about companies by voting with their wallets. The site ( www.karmabanque.com) produces the KarmaBanque rating - an index of the most likely companies for consumer boycotts. The KarmaBanque rating uses two pieces of data: the Boycott Vulnerability rating and the Ill-Will rating. The Boycott Vulnerability rating relies on the company's price-to-sales ratio, which shows how much the company's stock price depends on its sales.

Companies that rely on sales growth to fuel the stock price tend to be most affected by boycotts, says Max Keiser, the founder of KarmaBanque. "If an activist boycotts company A rather than company B, they're having more of a financial impact by focusing their attention on the company with the greatest vulnerability," he says. "This alone gives them greater financial leverage, and the internet's a great way to organise all this data." The Ill-Will rating is driven by the number of people who sign up to boycott a company at the KarmaBanque site. If the Ill-Will rating and the Boycott Vulnerability rating are high, the company moves up the Karmabanque index.

Keiser, an arch-capitalist with more than 20 years of experience in the City, argues that activists must embrace the market, as it is the only thing that companies understand. "The markets are, at their core, irrational and immoral, and activists should embrace that and use it to their advantage," he says.

Join a smart mob

Joining a boycott from the comfort of your desk is an attractive option, but does such push-button activism truly engage individuals with the issues? "I don't believe that there's such a thing as digital protest," says David Taylor, the founder of Radical Designs, a San Francisco-based company selling hosted content management services for activist groups. Instead, he sees it as simply a means to an end; an organisational tool for more traditional forms of protest that lets activists play a bigger part in the planning process than they did under the top-down model, when a small group of organisers would control an event. "What this allows for is a decentralisation of power and decision making," he says. "A lot of these mass actions now work using an affinity group model, which is a decentralised decision-making model."

Organising people who don't know each other to work in concert is the concept underlying "smart mobs", a principle defined by computing icon Howard Rheingold. Electronic hubs that gather together activists are appearing worldwide. In the US, The League of Pissed Off Voters is using its indyvoter.org site to co-ordinate political actions. Meanwhile, Taylor uses text messaging to quickly organise large groups of people. While supporting the Green Party candidate for the Mayor of San Francisco, he built an emergency list to help co-ordinate volunteers. "We had maybe 400 people on the list and we'd get 80 people coming to a certain place within the hour," he says. "It's really useful for last-minute political organising."

Become a video activist

Just as e-mail and websites can be used to organise communities, they can also be used to publish messages that "big" media may not be interested in covering. The Indymedia network started in 1999 to document the World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle. There are now more than 100 Indymedia centres across the world, including one in the UK.

"It was started by a group of activists who had been involved in community newspapers and media reform movements in the US," says Evan Henshaw-Plath, the founder of activist community website protest.net, who is involved with the group. "They knew that CNN, ABC and Fox were going to provide a pro-corporate view of the protest, and they didn't want to let them do that. They wanted to create an opposite of the corporate newsroom." The group organised ad hoc television and radio channels to complement news on its website, and other groups began copying the event, using the model to cover local protests and bring issues to the public's attention.

One of them was Indymedia UK ( www.indymedia.org.uk), which started in 2000 to document the Mayday protests, explains Martin, a member of the group who wishes to remain anonymous. The organisation works using a combination of the website and the e-mailing lists that enable individuals to communicate locally. Its structure is decentralised and, other than some people who must have access to the servers to make technical changes, everything is democratic and decided by consensus. This makes getting involved very easy and members of the public can simply submit their own media online.

Jam some culture

Culture jamming takes the independent media idea one stage further by co-opting corporate messages and modifying them for activist purposes. Andy Bichlbaum is one half of the Yes Men ( www.theyesmen.org), an activist duo that makes websites mimicking those of target organisations, but with altered messages. Bichlbaum develops sites, like www.gatt.org and www.dowethics.com, to present an alternative viewpoint to the targets that host the "real" sites ( www.wto.org and www.dow.com.) "The Gatt site makes it a lot more obvious what the WTO is really about," he says.

Give it away

Rather than voicing dissent by using the technology that you have, why not further social change by giving it away? Environmentalists were shocked by a United Nations research group report in March that revealed heavier-than-expected environmental impact caused by personal computers. Giving away computers to worthy causes is an act of high-tech activism that carries an environmental and social benefit. Tony Roberts, the CEO of UK-based charity Computer Aid, explains that PCs donated to his organisation go to schools or non-governmental organisations. "We're supplying computers into the meteorological office in Kenya, so that, at the district level, farmers can come in and analyse information for forecasting and planning their crops," he says.

Or you could keep your computer and use it to connect to Freecycle ( www.freecycle.org), the donation and gifting network that Deron Beal started in Arizona in 2003. The network, which uses Yahoo groups to unite local communities, focuses on donating second-hand goods.

Instead of throwing out old junk, Freecycle members list it on the local group. If another group member needs it, they come and pick it up - for free. "Why throw something in the landfill that you can reuse?" he asks, adding that assuming each gift donated on the network weighs a pound, Freecycle is saving 33 tons of junk from the landfills each day. There are 38 UK Freecycle groups.

All of our digital activism suggestions are legal, but what of Downhill Battle's less-than-lawful attempt to distribute the Eyes on the Prize documentary - "the most important documentary ever made about the Civil Rights Movement"? At the end of last month, it was forced to remove the file from its site ( www.downhillbattle.org) to comply with a cease and desist letter. But its laboratory is working on some other ideas, including a laptop PC that would be hidden at the top of a tree, complete with solar panels and a wireless router, to be used as a community file-sharing system.

Clearly, in the world of digital activism, there's always room to branch out into something new.

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