Political Activism on the Net
“How has the Internet helped or hurt political groups inside and outside the mainstream? How is it used by major political parties and candidates? What is the impact? How do/should current regulations about political campaigns affect individuals and small organizations that set up Web pages to support/oppose candidates and issues?”
It is no exaggeration to say that the internet has revolutionised political activism. This statement is, in fact, literally true: some revolutions, such as the Arab Spring of 2010-12 were organised online (Newnham and Bell 2012). This paper argues that the internet can provide huge boosts for political causes and parties, both mainstream and on the fringes. However, despite these boosts for individual causes, online activism is not necessarily beneficial for the health of democracy as a whole. Better regulation is needed to deal with the issues arising in response to the political possibilities and threats of the internet.
What do we mean by online activism? Anna Rees defines it simply as the use of the internet “to bring about social/political change (Rees 2020).” This can include online petitions (e.g. change.org), social networks (e.g. Facebook), blogging (e.g. WordPress), and micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter). Not all such platforms are designed to create political change, but they can be used like that and offer enormous potential reach to anyone with an internet connection. The impact on the established order has been so great that, as previously mentioned, regimes have fallen following campaigns that started, or at least spread, online.
In well-established democracies, the major political parties have tended to remain the same despite the rise of internet activism (no new party has challenged the establishment in the US, for example). But the internet has still massively impacted on those mainstream parties, because the quality of a party’s online campaign is now a major factor in determining election outcomes. Parties use it to spread their message, raise funds, and inspire involvement. A good example of the difference this can make is Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election triumph, which was partly driven by an unprecedented online campaign. Pew Research Center concluded, “Obama voters took a leading role engaging in online political activism this election cycle,” as his supporters were much more likely to campaign online than those of his rival, John McCain (Smith 2008).
Away from the big parties, online activism has been an outstanding way for campaigns focused on particular issues to go mainstream. Good examples of this are the #metoo movement against sexual harassment and Greta Thunberg’s school strikes on climate change. The Me Too movement was founded in 2007, but it was only after a tweet in 2017 that it went viral; #metoo was retweeted over 23 million times in just a few weeks leading to a cultural change and the exposure of many people (Collins 2020).
Thunberg’s climate campaign began with her alone but spread like wildfire online and inspired demonstrations in over 270 cities. Measuring its impact is difficult, but pledges from the EU to increase spending on fighting climate change appear to be a direct response to it, and it surely contributed to increases in voter concern about environmental issues and unprecedented successes for European Green parties (Adam 2019).
Given these examples of how online activism engages and inspires people, why is it the position of this paper that it is in requirement of better regulation? The reason is because online activism also offers very powerful opportunities to not so worthy causes to exploit the internet in ways which are dangerous for democracy.
One example of a non-mainstream political cause which has recently flourished is the QAnon conspiracy theory movement. It began with a post on a far-right message board in October 2017 and, despite having no credible supporting evidence, spread rapidly via chatrooms, YouTube and Facebook and has resulted in violence. A recent Facebook clamp down resulted in the closure of 1,500 QAnon affiliated pages with 4,000,000+ members in just one month, showing the spread of the movement. Its impact also saw a QAnon-supporting candidate elected to Congress in the 2020 elections.
QAnon is not an isolated case. Previously political information for most people came via newspapers that were held to some standards and which could, at least theoretically, be regulated in the event of printing lies. Now, in the internet age, everybody is free to publish their own claims, with barely any regulation and the potential to reach billions. The internet works can often serve to promote false ideas over facts, “On the internet, the prominence granted to any factual assertion or belief… depends on the preferences of billions of individual searchers. Each click on a link is effectively a vote pushing that version of the truth toward the top of the pile of results…Exciting falsehoods tend to do well in the perpetual referenda, and become self-validating.” (Andersen 2017)
The internet is a highly-effective political tool, but its unregulated nature makes it highly open to abuse. This can be from groups of individuals trapped in social media echo chambers, to foreign states seeking to pervert the course of elections through online misinformation campaigns (Hern and Harding 2020). Ece Temelkuran described these phenomena, “We just invented social media… we cannot really control it, and we are experiencing the childhood diseases of social media playing out in our democratic institutions.” (Shah 2019)
On the basis of the above, I believe more needs to be done to regulate internet users, especially groups outside the mainstream who are not regulated as traditional media are. Of course, it is a difficult balance to strike. The positive potential of the internet to organise against regimes and promote positive causes must not be damaged by any regulation. Nevertheless, some potential ideas for regulation in this difficult field include: third party bodies setting common standards about harmful content across the internet and updating legislation about political advertising (including defining it more broadly) to stop election interference (Zuckerberg 2019). More also needs to be done to fund independent fact-checking to counter the risks of online lies impacting on politics.
In conclusion, online activism has had a major impact on everything from mainstream political parties to individual causes. There are positive and negative sides to this. Democracy has been opened up and many worthwhile causes have received huge exposure and prompted positive change. But this has also created opportunities for darker political influence and created a space in which “lies travel faster than the truth” and threaten to undermine democracy (McArdle 2018). More standardised regulation is required, but a delicate balance must be struck to avoid damaging the Internet’s potential for promoting democracy and positive political engagement.
Vaughan, Adam. 2019. “The Year the World Woke up to Climate Change”New Scientist. December 18, 2019. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24432613-000-the-world-started-to- wake-up-to-climate-change-in-2019-now-what/
Andersen, Kurt. 2017. “How America Lost its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017.
Collins, Erika C. 2020. “The Global Impact of #Metoo Movement,” The Employment Law Review, 11, https://thelawreviews.co.uk/edition/the-employment-law-review-edition-11/1216077/the- global-impact-of-metoo-movement
Hern, Alex, and Luke Harding. 2020. “Russian-Led Troll Network Based in West Africa Uncovered.” The Guardian, March 13, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/13/facebook-uncovers-russian-led-troll- network-based-in-west-africa
McArdle, Megan. 2018. “We Finally Know for Sure that Lies Spread Faster than the Truth,” The Washington Post, March 14, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-finally- know-for-sure-that-lies-spread-faster-than-the-truth-this-might-be-why/ 2018/03/14/92ab1aae-27a6-11e8-bc72-077aa4dab9ef_story.html
Newnham, Jack, and Peter Bell. 2012. “Social network media and political activism: a growing challenge for law enforcement,” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 7:1 (2012): 36-50, https://doi.org/10.1080/18335330.2012.653194
Rees, Anna. 2020. “Digital and Online Activism.” Accessed November 24, 2020. https://en.reset.org/knowledge/digital-and-online-activism
Shah, Vikas. 2019. “A Conversation with Ece Temelkuran,” Thought Economics, September 1, 2019
Smith, Aaron. 2008. “The Internet’s Role in Campaign 2008.” Accessed November 23, 2020
Zuckerberg, Mark. 2019. “The Internet Needs New Rules. Let’s Start in These Four Areas,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mark- zuckerberg-the-internet-needs-new-rules-lets-start-in-these-four-areas/2019/03/29/9e6f0504- 521a-11e9-a3f7-78b7525a8d5f_story.html