Protest technology

The technology of protest: the whole world is watching

How the radicalised flower children of the 1960s seeded the growth of electronic protest.

Protest groups have sought to harness technology since the invention of the printing press, and it was the 1960s that saw the process go electronic.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the hippie movement that emerged during 1967’s Summer of Love is the first counterculture we think of in colour. Certainly, mods and rockers were fastidious about their appearance, but we remember them in black-and-white: archive footage of Bill Haley rockin’ around the clock; grainy clips of scooters headed for Brighton; The Beatles’ first movie, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

However, US broadcasters introduced all-colour programming during prime time just a year before the ‘gathering of the tribes’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Importantly, this meant colour nightly news bulletins.

This switch to colour affected how protest would evolve in two significant ways.

First, a new paisley-clad counterculture that seemed even more vivid than its predecessors – exciting to the young, but threatening to the establishment – was beamed into millions of US living rooms. Many hippies espoused a back-to-the-land philosophy, but quickly learned to play up for nearby cameramen.

Second, news was filled with daily bulletins from Vietnam, not only the first ‘television war’, but also the first in colour, giving imagery a more visceral edge; the same applied to events surrounding the US drive for decent, universal Civil Rights. More activists were activated.

Protest organisations that once concentrated on exerting influence locally now sought a national reach. Tactics and stunts to lure network news crews became more common and sophisticated.

On 6 October 1967, the Summer of Love’s leadership staged a mock funeral for ‘the hippie’ in San Francisco. Its message was that their ideas needed to spread globally, conveyed in a theatrical media event for consumption far beyond the Bay Area.

As organiser Mary Kasper later explained: “We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, to stay where you are, bring the revolution to where you live and don’t come here because it’s over and done with.”

Days later, on 21 October, 100,000 people marched through downtown Washington DC against the Vietnam War but then, deviating from the ‘official’ route, half headed for the Pentagon. The result: a violent, nationally covered confrontation.

By August 1968, anti-war demonstrators at the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago could justifiably chant: “The whole world is watching.”

When Intel’s Gordon Moore coined his law in 1965, he surely did not wonder how it might change public protest. Yet it was already starting to happen, and was not solely about affordable colour TVs.

Music was crucial to the message. Inexpensive transistor radios put a rock station in every student’s digs as the price of hi-fi kit tumbled. The stations themselves kept getting cheaper to build and the US experienced huge growth in ‘public access’ radio and also TV stations targeting small communities.

Meanwhile, during the protests, organisers used inexpensive walkie-talkies to marshal crowds. As author and activist LA Kaufman describes in her book ‘Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism’, protesters even pre-empted ‘phone phreaking’ of the 1970s by working out how to spoof franking machines. This early hack, more likely mechanical than digital, delivered direct-mail on minimal budgets.

Yet it has been in the decades since that protest has developed a recognisably digital arsenal. Take two significant examples. The early 1980s saw the introduction of desktop publishing. Anyone with sufficient skills could produce high-quality graphics on a PC at relatively low cost.

Importantly, that wave of innovation coincided with the original Aids crisis which motivated many traditional activists, but given the existential threat, it also attracted middle-class, white-collar professionals, notably from fields such as design, PR and marketing.

In 1987, six New York activists formed the ‘Silence = Death’ project, plastering what is still regarded as one of the most powerful political posters around the city. With its bitterly ironic use of the pink triangle – the symbol gay men were forced to wear in Nazi death camps – it became the first in an influential series of similar calls-to-action using variations such as ‘Action = Life’ and ‘Ignorance = Fear’. The project’s work also helped seed the Act Up US campaign on Aids awareness. It continued to adopt an often professional aesthetic to convey its message and lobby elected politicians.

The second example is the N30 protests against the 1999 Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle. It is considered one of the first big protests with a large online component, leveraging websites, email, bulletin boards and more in the run-up to November’s marches.

However, Seattle also saw a resurgence in ‘independent media’ during and after the event. Underground newspapers have been around for centuries, but in Seattle, the camcorder and ever-cheaper professional and prosumer cameras came to the fore. Moore’s Law at work again.

The signature documentary on the protests, ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’, was ‘directed’ by Richard Rowley and Jill Friedberg, but an initial caption underlines how their role was more that of editors: “The following film was shot by over 100 media activists.”

In addition to illustrating power of digital technologies, ‘Silence = Death’ and N30 highlight how innovation has increasingly allowed protest movements to evolve beyond coat-tugging the media, as during the Summer of Love, to using emerging tools to become a powerful alternative. This thread runs through to today – this year’s March for Science streamed its Washington event in full and live on YouTube.

Yet Seattle and Act Up come with a caveat. Both largely succeeded, judged on their own terms. In the US and elsewhere, Act Up and movements inspired by it forced western governments to address and dispel myths around Aids and then prioritise allied needs for research and access to treatment. The 1999 WTO round did collapse, but they were largely exceptions. Many big protests still fail – consider those against the war in Iraq.

Digital tools are powerful, but they also have and continue to come up against the biggest challenge facing grass-roots activism: maintaining engagement.

On 22 April 2017, more than one million people worldwide joined various editions of the March for Science, 100,000 in Washington DC and 10,000 in London.

On 29 April 2017, more than 200,000 turned out in pouring DC rain for the People’s Climate March. Many more attended satellite events.

On 1 June 2017, President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Veteran climate-change activists were not disheartened by this. They always expected a long fight and therefore see the problem ahead in terms of how more moderately engaged supporters will react. Will they stay or fade away? It is a perennial problem.

“One march or one protest will rarely achieve the goal in itself. It’s a starting point,” says Kaufman. “Getting a good number of people to stay active afterwards is the important part. Whatever you do, a large proportion of people will simply march and see that as their contribution.”

The challenge remains the same as that reflected in that funereal hippie parting shot. “This part of the campaign is over, but the struggle continues.” For that though, you need, as the pro-Jeremy Corbyn group’s name says, Momentum.

At a time where innovation has added Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to the activists’ toolbox, you’d think sustaining good communication has become easier. In fact, the reverse may be true.

The term ‘affinity groups’ often crops up in protest circles. It originated in Spain, shortly before its Civil War, and refers to small gatherings of like-minded individuals that debate among themselves and motivate one another, but are also part of a broader movement. They are considered the bedrock of activism and personal engagement has long been seen as key to their effectiveness. That is harder to achieve online.

“The idea among activists that you are part of a community is very important,” says Kaufman. “If you even look at the Occupy movement, you had some wonderful things happening when people were gathered together, but once the camps started being evicted, it seemed to lose something quickly.”

Academic research suggests that using online tools to foster real-world communities may be more effective than trying to achieve goals virtually.

Deana Rohlinger, professor of sociology at Florida State University, has studied online activism as practised by two politically diverse groups, the ‘progressive’ (established during Bill Clinton’s presidency) and the ‘Republican/libertarian’ Florida Tea Party Movement (established during the Tea Party surge in 2009).

She initially found the two groups had not only different political views, but also strategies for reaching members. MoveOn took a ‘vertical’ approach. Bluntly put, it told its mailing list what to do, but only had limited tools for gathering feedback and suggestions.

“MoveOn uses ICT to hierarchically structure the interactions among its supporters,” her original report said. “Leaders craft most of the organisational events, including activities and topics of conversation for its seven million plus supporters, use ICT to help local activists ‘host’ these events, and control how supporters interact via email.”

FTPM took a ‘horizontal’ approach. “It consists of groups on- and off-line, which creates a network structure that allows for a great deal of interaction among leaders and supporters on a range of topics,” she wrote.

Interviewing both groups’ supporters, Rohlinger encountered consistent concern over the vertical approach. MoveOn participants felt they already were not getting a proper hearing; FTPM participants feared the Republican Party would assimilate its movement and impose a top-down structure.

Speaking today, Rohlinger notes a change: “What’s interesting is that MoveOn appears to have taken the criticism and become less vertical, while the Tea Party has been integrated more within the traditional Republican hierarchy and members concerned about that have drifted away.”

Does today’s virtual activism – perhaps virtual politicking generally – have a fundamental flaw? Is it too impersonal and authoritarian? Does it fail to satisfy desires for community and self-expression which hippies valued?

“One powerful thing about Facebook and Twitter and the internet generally is that it allows movements to scale massively,” says Hahrie Han, professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara and another leading researcher into online activism. “But that has risks. One thing is that even if your activities are mostly online, you still need to personalise the process. It can be done though.”

Han cites the example of an increasing number of websites that allow individuals to sign petitions or join letter-writing campaigns. “It is not always the campaigns that attract the greatest number of supporters that finally achieve the best results,” she says. “You can have a campaign where tens or hundreds of thousands of people click to support a petition or send an automated letter, but there’s more impact where, for example, you help a smaller group of people develop their own takes and send the letter themselves or use their support to connect them to other people with similar opinions. That doesn’t always need a real-world component.”

Similarly, there has been rapid growth in profiling across all political movements, using data gathered online not only to personalise calls-to-action, but also advertisements on Facebook. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has just taken this a step further to personalise door-to-door canvassing, with apparently great success.

Scale brings other concerns, though. One long-standing activist involved with January’s Women’s March and April’s March for Science says the later event took an important lesson from its predecessor.

“The Women’s March was beautiful but it was a real challenge because it came together so quickly,” she says. “We went from an idea on Facebook a few days after Trump won to five million women worldwide getting out on the streets only two months later.

“But then think about that another way. With anything like this, you want to grab that energy. The problem in January was the amount of work involved just in getting the march together didn’t leave space to think about what should happen afterwards. For the Science March [sic], there was space to get a kind of ‘And then what?’ into the strategy. Hopefully, that’s what you’ll see coming through in the next few months.”

In short, success on the internet can be overwhelming. Many in the hippie movement felt they faced their own crushing wave, although that was less because of scale and more because of attempts to commercialise their original intentions, a philosophical rather than infrastructural challenge.

That distinction is perhaps the main new message for today’s activists. How do you keep the personal element up-front when the numbers involved can quickly become vast?

The answer from activists and academics here is that it can be done, largely by remembering the internet merely provides a new set of tools to answer historically-established challenges – engagement, making sure people get as much of a say as they want, and developing a clear message. Then make sure you match your resources to the task.

This is what democracy looks like. Probably. Only while there is perhaps still plenty of scope to turn on and tune in, there’s a lot less to drop out.

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