Changing the laws of cause and effect
The internet is not only a great megaphone for protest groups it allows them to organise and rally behind a cause in ways previously beyond the dreams even of their idealistic manifestos. Few of their targets are awake to the new rules of engagement or ho
|Mayday 2001||Independent Media Centre|
|McSpotlight||Reclaim The Streets|
|World Trade Organisation|
This week’s assaults on capitalism and globalisation were largely co-ordinated on the internet. Here is a springtime examination on cybersociology (a subject I have just invented), with suggested answers. Question one: would the protests have been possible without the internet? Question two: how has the internet changed the nature of protest organisations? Question three: what does the online response of the organisations being targeted tell us about them?
Answer One: world-wide co-ordination
Well, the internet is certainly an extraordinarily effective way of gathering disparate groups together in the right place at the right time. Mayday 2001 is probably the central point. Apart from a picture of a crowd and some slogans to dissuade the conventionally inclined (“Shell kills Nigerians”, “NestlÃ© kills babies”), this site is simply a portal that leads, via a drop down box, to the city you want to disrupt – from Adelaide to Wellington. The London link takes you to Maydaymonopoly.com, a professional-looking site based on the Monopoly board. It carries detailed instructions about where to be, and what to do. “Meet at Marylebone at 7.30 with your bike”, “Build a hotel in Mayfair” (Bring cardboard and sticky tape to Marble Arch). The protest movement even has its own news service – Independent Media Centre, which has some navigation problems, but is still an impressive and constantly updated resource on activity around the world.
A huge number of different types of protest have been held around the world. It is difficult to see how, with only leaflets, posters and word-of-mouth, anything on this scale could possibly have been organised.
Answer two: virtual alliances
In the good old days, protestors tended to be organised in ‘cells’, to be secretive, and to hate almost-like-minded groups far more than the common enemy. Today’s protestors are far more inclusive – united by what they don’t like (the World Trade Organisation, multinationals, etc) more than by what they do. The web gives them a way of coming together and sharing what they will, without any formal mergers or threats of takeover. Rather as the internet allows companies to work closely together without having any formal link, so single issue organisations such as McSpotlight link happily to general anti-capitalist outfits such as Reclaim the Streets and Global Resistance. They can benefit from joint action on May Day, yet could never merge.
McSpotlight started as a publicity vehicle for the defendants in the McLibel trial, who had handed out leaflets accusing the hamburger chain of a string of sins. It now has a mass of carefully collated information/allegations about McDonald’s, as well a certain amount about other multinationals. By contrast Global Resistance covers a pick’n’mix set of issues, including child labour, exploitation of immigrants and “anti-capitalism”, but while blaming multinationals for pretty much everything it is light on constructive proposals. This generalism seems to be accompanied by a less solemn attitude. Reclaim the Streets announces that with its activities you can get involved in “global and socio-ecological revolution… and still be home in time for tea”. Quite a contrast with the oh-so-serious Marx 57 Varieties of revolutionary most of us grew up with. It is noticeable that the one site that does try to offer some theoretical underpinning, Peoples’ Global Action (get there from reclaimthestreets.com), is also the most boring. Its long manifesto is designed to trigger discussion, but the attached forum carries just two postings. Who says ideology isn’t dead?
Answer three: mixed reactions
The response of the targets tells us much about their openness. I looked at four ‘sinners’ – McDonald’s (exploiting workers, plus other charges), Shell (murder in Nigeria), Nike (child labour) and the World Trade Organisation (globalisation, encouragement of). McDonald’s prefers to ignore the accusations, despite the high profile of its online opponents. The nearest it comes is offering a banal “People Promise”: “We Value You, Your Growth and Your Contributions” (this is the full text). It did once produce leaflets countering the accusations made by the McLibel Two – but I found these on the McSpotlight site, not on its own. The company apparently feels that if issues are out of site, they are out of mind. Risky.
Both Nike and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are more active, though neither plays up its defence. The WTO assumes its visitors are in favour of free trade, although by clicking on the About WTO button I did find “10 common understandings about the WTO”. Informative, if slightly schoolmasterly. Nike hides its light even more determinedly. Its main site (www.nike.com) has a tiny link to a corporate site, which in turn has a button labelled “Responsibility”. Here I discovered the company has a programme called Transparency 101, designed to audit its supplying factories for child labour. Although there is great detail about the results of these audits, I could not find any material explaining how they work – easy enough to add, surely? I have the impression that there are warring factions in Nike: one side wants to tackle the issues and publish the defence; the other says, let’s keep stumm.
At Shell, the ‘open’ lobby has won. An “Issues and Dilemmas” button on the home page links to sections on bribery, human rights, climate change and much more. These are in turn linked to forums which the group says are uncensored – and I believe it. A recent posting tells us that “It’s in Shell’s interest that Nigerians are killed”. A calculated risk, perhaps, but it does make it reasonable for the group’s managers to dive back in with lengthy postings. By taking every attack, however extreme, seriously it gives itself great credibility. McDonald’s and others might like to note.
First published on 04 May, 2001