Campaigns Around the World

A few of years ago, considering a campaign on the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Suliman Baldo, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I proposed that postal mail and faxes might be more effective than email activism. He responded that a functioning infrastructure for postal mail and fax machines simply did not exist. On the other hand, he noted, every rebel leader had access to a HotMail account.

Conditions for Internet campaigning vary widely. This is not just a matter of connectivity, but of preexisting social relations. Why, for instance, has organization like MoveOn not emerged in South Korea? Or an institution like OhMyNews not emerged in the U.S.?

A deeper analysis of this is outside the scope of this document, but below are a few examples of how organizations are using the Internet around the world.

It is worth noting that when these campaign has successfully crossed national borders they have been taken up, translated and reinterpreted by independent individuals and groups taking their own initiative — i.e. not organized from a central source. See sections on openess and blogs for more on this.

National Organizing

Indonesia

Universities tend to be fairly wired environments. This is consistent around the world, even in countries where the access is restricted. As such, students have been quick to adopt the Internet for organizing.

Use of the Internet was a major factor leading to the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Despite the brutal conditions, students used Internet connections to coordinate demonstrations, political action and other activities.[source]

China

The case of Sun Zhigang is one of the first times a popular outcry online has changed government policy:

In early 2003, Sun Zhigang went to Guangzhou in search of employment as a fashion designer. Like many other migrants at many levels of Chinese society, Sun was required to have a special “temporary residence permit” in order to look for work outside of his home town. Like many others, Sun was detained by police in a migrant detention center; he was severely beaten and died a few days later in police custody.

While this story was not a new one in China, it touched a raw nerve and sparked public action. Within days of the initial news article in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, thousands of Internet users had forwarded the article by e-mail and posted it to bulletin boards. Hundreds of thousands of protest messages appeared on popular sites such as sina.com and sohu.com, decrying Sun’s death and sharing their own experiences of police abuse.

One group set up a memorial page to Sun Zhigang on www.cn.netor.com. Many reported there that editors were rapidly deleting their messages on other pages. In the first day, the netor.com memorial site had hundreds of protest messages. On the second day, there were thousands of messages. On the third day, pages of the site began to be inaccessible. A week later, the protest page was blocked. Gradually, the great uproar was silenced.

But by then, senior Chinese legal scholars had begun to take up the cause, writing letters to government officials calling for abolishment of the temporary residence permits and reform of the migrant detention centers. Some of these reforms were enacted, making the Sun Zhigang case a breakthrough in China: for one, authorities did change the migrant detention centers into voluntary service centers. [source]

While case of Sun Zhigang inspired reactions across the vast geography of the country, in the South of China, a smaller, local technological revolution is taking place. Chinese officials have suppressed Dai culture and language since the 1920’s. Recent innovations in software and digital publishing tools, however, are helping Dai speakers in China, Burma, and Thailand keep the language alive. Video, disks, and software are primarily transferred offline, by hand, in face-to-face meetings, primarily via monks who have the most freedom to travel.

International Organizing

Mexico

The armed uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in the Mexican state of Chiapas was one of the first social movements to use the Internet effectively. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army took over 5 towns and over 500 ranches in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico. The Zapatistas say they chose this date because it marked the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement. During the long war between the Mexican Army and the Zapatistas, the Zapatistas sent out periodic email communiques through journalists and sympathizers that described the situation on the ground, the ideals behind the movement, and its critique of neoliberalism. Despite limited mainstream media coverage of the struggle, the communiques were distributed throughout Mexico and the world, published on the Web, and on gopher sites. I believe it is the literary dimension and political analysis of the communiques as well as the EZLN’s methodolgy that propelled their popularity. These were not simply action alerts, but poetic manifestos and little literary bombs appealing for egalitarian autonomy against a repressive,, thuggish state.

As support and solidarity for the movement grew, the actions of Mexican government were increasingly scrutinized. Protests were held around the world, meetings were organized in Chiapas and across South America, and the Mexican government was eventually pushed to accept mediation and negotiations instead of military force. This page has a list of information resources in English.

Homosexuals in the Arab World

From The Internet In the Arab World: A New Space of Repression?:

Homosexuals might be the only social group in the Arab World that was completely unable to declare publicly its existence until the appearance of the Internet. To declare yourself leftist, Islamist, Shiite or Nasserist means to expose yourself to some security, cultural or religious problems; to declare yourself homosexual means exposing yourself to every single one of these problems....

Arab homosexuals use several different web pages to express themselves, their ideas and their burdens, and to increase society's knowledge about them.

The Web site of the Association of Arab Gays and Lesbians could be considered the oldest and the most famous website of Arab homosexuals. Its appearance [in November 1996] inspired the creation of several other websites addressing Arab homosexuals and led some foreign websites to allocate sections in their pages for issues concerning Arab homosexuals.

The number of homosexual web sites increased after a string of government crack-down campaigns. More regionally specific homosexual websites started to appear, such as the Egypt Gays web site, Arab Gays website, Lebanon Gays website, and Al-Fatiha Gays website. Even in Saudi Arabia, known as an extremely conservative state, homosexuals created a web site, named The Saudi Gay....

Despite the bans that the majority of Arab states have placed on these websites, they remain popular and are visited regularly. An attractive feature about these websites is that they publish news about the oppression of minority groups, like the police crackdown on the homosexuals in Egypt.

Ghana and its Diaspora

Internet fundraising also helped elect three opposition leaders in three major African nations since 2002:

Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya all have large, wired, and relatively wealthy expatriate populations overseas. The expatriates want longtime tyrants out, and the Net offers increased electoral influence in the form of online fundraising. But living abroad, the only opposition candidates expats know are the old guard. Ghana provides the best example. In its 2000 election, an online expat group called the Ghana Cyber Group raised $50,000 for Kufuor according to the group’s founder, Yaw Owusu. Cyber Group members also aggressively used the Net for grassroots campaigning: they organized calls to family and friends back home, in some instances even threatening to stop remitting money to local chiefs who didn't go hut to hut rounding up votes for Kufuor. [source]

United Kingdom

On September 25, 1995 the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company sacked 500 dockworkers in Liverpool for refusing to cross a picket line. Faced with Thatcher’s anti-union laws at home, the dockers appealed for international support. Along with conventional means of communication, they spread the word through email and a Web site on LabourNet. As the dockers travelled to carry the picket abroad, to publicize the struggle and raise funds, they found that when they arrived, people already knew about their struggle “from the Internet.” LabourNet became a daily news service for dockers worldwide about the Liverpool dispute.

Using this network the dockers were able to organize two international days of action in their support. In the first day of action, the body that supposedly possessed the authority to call international dockers’ actions, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), was circumvented in this way and reduced to trailing limply behind the dockers’ network. It organized virtually no action itself and when asked by the press to supply information on the pending action it was forced to send begging E-mails to LabourNet to try to find out what was actually happening. This first day of action, on 20th January 1997, resulted in what one international union official described as ‘the biggest international working class action for 100 years.’ In 27 countries, 105 ports and cities, dockers, seafarers, and other workers took part in workplace meetings, public meetings, demonstrations at British Embassies and Consulates, work-to-rules, and full-scale stoppages ranging from 30 minutes up to 24 hours. Whilst this was happening, the Liverpool dockers’ union, the Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU), was trying to persuade the Liverpool dockers and their families to accept redundancy payments and quit their fight. The international support was inspiring them to carry on and was making the TGWU leadership’s task much more difficult. When the Liverpool shop stewards called a second day of action on 8th September 1997 the TGWU insisted that the ITF must not support the action. This made very little difference. If anything the action was bigger than the first one. US and Canadian longshoremen closed down the entire North American West Coast from Alaska to Los Angeles for 24 hours. The flexibility of the dockers’ communication network was illustrated by the fact that they were able to organize this action whilst keeping the employers in the dark about its actual date, only publicly announcing it at the last moment.

In September 1997, a ship from Britain with containers on board from a company using Liverpool was refused by dockers in Oakland, Vancouver, and at two different ports in Japan. Rather than sail back to Britain, the ship and its cargo were sold to a company in Hong Kong.

This action caused great fear amongst ship owners and their insurers, even more than the international days of action had. Despite this growing international strength, the dockers were ultimately forced to surrender by the connivance of the TGWU leadership. On 26th January, 1998, the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards Committee issued a statement notifying supporters around the world that ‘the Liverpool dockworkers decided to call an end to their long running dispute.’ Behind the scenes, enormous pressure, full details of which have never been fully revealed, had been put on the shop stewards by the TGWU leadership to force them to end the dispute. Despite this defeat, the Liverpool dockers’ struggle proved how powerful a networked union communication structure based on the Internet could be in the fight back against a globalized capital that dominates the mainstream media. During the course of the Liverpool fight, dockers in a number of other countries: Montreal in Canada, Santos in Brazil, Los Angeles in the US, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Stockholm in Sweden all began producing their own Web sites. The defeat of the Liverpool men meant most of these Web sites later closed down, but workers elsewhere are still building Internet based communications networks inspired by the one built in support of Liverpool.

During the Korean general strike in 1997, the, then illegal, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions used LabourNet and its own Web sites to publicize its actions. This later resulted in the formation of Korean LaborNet (NodongNet). In February [2002], the All Japan Dockworkers’ Union, which played a central role in taking action for Liverpool, worked together with labour media activists to launch LaborNet Japan. [source]


Additional examples are organized thematically here.

Last modified on January 19, 2006 03:32 PM

Additional Resources