I got into one of those brain food conversations that keeps me wondering why it took so long to get into Google Plus. Fellow Internet Freedom Movement member Juan Valencia asked that very question, hoping that he'd get a flood of responses and a good debate about the merits and demerits of internet activism. In the end, only three of us ended up talking about it but we had a great time and I want to share that with you.
Nature abhors a vacuum
The main thrust of the debate was that petitions aren't effective because they need to be backed up with follow-up, i.e. calls to representatives, etc., to keep the pressure on.
Well, yeah. That's what it's for. You see, I reckon that petitions are a collection of the names of people who are willing to stand up and be counted, to be identified with a cause. As I said to Juan, they're not effective by themselves because they're just a collection of names, but at the same time, you shouldn't discount them altogether because they're a collection of the names of people who are willing to stand up and be identified with a particular cause. The point is, they don't work all by themselves, but as part of an overall process.
Public relations: the bark and the bite
Contrary to the general rules of social discourse, you are actively encouraged to discuss religion and politics on Google +. I get involved in them a lot, and now that I'm an online activist, I talk politics all the time. One of the key things about politics is that it affects us daily whether we like it or not. There's also a bleed-over into other areas of life because as I said above, nothing exists in a vacuum. At least not here on Earth. Anyway, the currently alarming lurch to the far right has bled over from control of the internet to control of womens' bodies, because controlling people are controlling and one is never enough for them, and even when they've got it all they will want more. This can only work when they've got people on side and they use Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt to do it by convincing them that they can save them from the things they fear. Shortly after people acquiesce they realise that actually their guard dog was the big bad wolf all along.
The strength of numbers
What people need to realise is that we still have got at least the semblance of democracy and we can use that to our advantage. When they forget that there is strength in numbers they stop fighting and give in to what they think is inevitable. The trick is to agree to work together and remind the powers that be that you can only govern a country with the consent of the people, so stop consenting, already! That's where petitions come in. They raise awareness and strength of feeling about issues to the number of people who sign it (the reasonably committed) and to those who know about it but failed to sign it for whatever reason. Politicians know this, and fear the effect of a backlash. Indeed, the current mantra in Washington is Don't be SOPA'd. Why? The total number of people involved in the backlash was something like 30 million people, and those are the ones that were counted. Now add the people who knew about it. We're talking about a hundred million plus. Now guess what they will be spouting come the elections. Why, internet freedom, of course. And only the ones who actually delivered it will get the votes. In an ideal world. Now here's a great example of how a backlash can change policies:
A Hollywood film company has offered to "amicably resolve" a dispute with a Southampton pub over its name and decor.
The Hobbit pub had been accused of copyright infringement by lawyers representing the Saul Zaentz Company (SZC) in California.
Producer Paul Zaentz said he was open to licensing the pub to use its JRR Tolkien brands. - BBC News
Here's the kicker:
A Facebook campaign set up by the pub's users has more than 45,000 supporters
Okay, so 45,000 supporters isn't a lot compared to the SOPA/PIPA backlash, but remember, there's 45,000 people who liked the page and those people like me who were aware of it but didn't sign it. I know about it and might elect not to go to the new Hobbit movie when it comes out to stick it to Zaentz because I'm annoyed with him for trademark trolling. On one side, the pub's owners should have asked before using trademarked names and images because they used the New Line production ones as well as the Tolkien ones, but on the flip side encouraging the continuing popularity of the Tolkien franchise makes people want to buy the books and see the films. May I add that the features on the Special Extended Edition are well worth the price? You can't get them on the pirate torrents. Okay, end plug. The point is, when 45,000 people flipped out at Zaentz on Facebook and Heaven only knows how many others on other platforms, he caved in and offered them a £100 licence.
Do petitions work? Yes, if you get enough signatures and socio-political momentum. They help to raise awareness but you can't rely on them by themselves, you have to follow up and have a good crowd behind you to enforce your call to action or you're wasting your time. I believe in them.