Digital Legacies: Activism

Julius Wiedemann debates the role of online activism and how it has impacted the world in the last two decades, from politics to social media and the internet’s trolling culture.

by Julius Wiedemann Published on : Feb 09, 2021

It is quite clear now that the COVID-19 has accelerated the uptake of many digital technologies, including related habits we have criticised for so long, such as the screen time. I define politics as the art and science of manipulating perceptions. How the two are related - politics and technology - used to be debatable, but not anymore. Now it is business as usual. The landscape of politics, in the last five years, has already been a masterclass of how technology can influence activism on a global scale.

Barack Obama’s online campaign raised nearly $800 million back in 2008 | Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Barack Obama’s online campaign raised nearly $800 million back in 2008 Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

But COVID-19 accelerated the process. Conferences ceased to exist. Not all of them, but most of them. Instead, institutions and political parties had to find a way to substitute the famous fundraising dinners and other fundraising get-togethers. The zoom concerts and endless live webinars, talks and performances during the pandemic became a staple. In 2008, the (Barack) Obama campaign raised nearly $800 million, mostly online though small donations. At that time Obama criticised the status quo of campaign donations and insisted that it could be done in a completely new way, online, from a much wider audience that was not only willing to give money but also willing to get engaged in politics. At that time Facebook was only about four-years-old, and little was known about its capacity to influence voters through advertising, a strategy which would still take a few years to mature.

Barack Obama’s online campaign from 2008| Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Barack Obama’s online campaign from 2008 Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

In the first decade of the 20th century, fundraising was the main focus in the revolution of digitised politics so to speak. With Facebook founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005, and Twitter in 2006, these platforms were still experimenting with getting more audience and had little impact on the real politics. They were still worried about creating critic mass so that they could raise funds for the next round of growth and ensure targets were met. Not only were they immature in terms of how people would use them, they were also not mature in terms of business model and the demands of investors for revenue growth.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s Instagram account | Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s Instagram account Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

It took us almost a decade to understand how good and how damaging these platforms would be for online activism. From the lack of control in terms of information to the lack of regulation they were submitted to, to the pressures exercised by investors, to the psychological game they played with. It is much clearer now how important these digital territories are to reach out to voters, activists for all types of causes, volunteers, public opinion building, and others. With fake news, the problem of using this digital apparatus became even clearer, but not apparent on all sides. Much worse, many specialists claim, is what lies behind the algorithms in these digital platforms. Gone are the times when your post on your timeline is directly seen in chronological order by others. It’s now a combination of hundreds of parameters for these messages to reach out to specific people, with specific behavioural patterns and preferences, at specific times, and so on and so forth.

Greta Thunberg has been hailed as a hero and heavily trolled online | Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Greta Thunberg has been hailed as a hero and heavily trolled online Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Some forms of digital activism are e-mail and social media campaigning, virtual sit-ins, and “hacktivism” (disrupting web sites). Some movements had to completely rely on the internet so that the message could keep spreading. Protests are always effective because the sheer presence of people on the streets communicate the urgency of the matter. However, everything that is needed to prepare these initiatives, and everything that comes after, needs to have a strong digital arm today, otherwise it’s dead the next day.

Greenpeace is a non-governmental, environmental organisation | Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Greenpeace is a non-governmental, environmental organisation Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

What that creates is an environment that heats up the opposite sides quickly and explodes in digital battles and wars. Blocking and cancelling have become the normative to try to impede speech from others. And this is really just a beginning. A simple meme can spark a chain reaction of unprecedented magnitude. The sensibilities of our times require care and resilience. Every hashtag counts now. Every emoji can go wrong.

From micro aggression to cancelling, from anonymity to stardom, everything seems to be possible online. And what fascinates us is the depth and speed of this movements, the level of engagement and awareness generated, and a learning curve in the speed of light every time something big happens. The phenomenon of the Kardashians, which is run almost entirely online, is a proof of how the digital empires can be built. Surely TV is still important, but also TV is now a part of the technological infrastructure that surrounds us. I think only that we should stay vigilant about exposure, and how these phenomena can design the next generations’ perceptions about reality and virtuality.

Save the Arctic is a Greenpeace campaign to protect the Arctic | Digital Legacies: Activism | STIRworld
Save the Arctic is a Greenpeace campaign to protect the Arctic Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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