The opposite of internet activism is not street activism but no-activism. Online petitions and political hashtags are indispensable in the campaign for change while non-action is a convenient option that only serves the interest of status quo.
Internet activism is sometimes equated with impotence but at least it exists. There are no TV activists and newspaper activists but there are internet activists. Why is this so? Because corporate ownership of mainstream media has made it impossible for the people to dictate the agenda in major media networks. Meanwhile, the internet has become truly social by allowing the people to create and exchange cyber tools that can be used for political purposes.
We are still in the stage of experimentation on how the internet can be redirected and reshaped to serve the community. Various forces are still competing for dominance in the online world at a time when corporate conglomerates and government bodies are not yet able to impose an absolute hegemony on how we use and practice the potential of the internet technology.
Indeed, because of intensified militarization and commodification, the internet has become a more dangerous place than ever where the space for independent thought and practice is under threat. But since total government regulation is still unenforceable at the moment, this technology should not be easily surrendered to the enemy. The internet-plus-activism equation must be continually pursued.
And the undeniable fact is that among the most resolute and creative practitioners of internet activism in the country are the militant activists of the parliament of the streets. They have been consistently maximizing the most effective social media tools to promote their causes and recruit members. They have successfully initiated several campaigns that combine the offline and online to make a greater political impact such as the text jokes at the height of Edsa Dos, Hello Garci ringtones, and disappearing Facebook profiles. Activists are as tech-savvy as they are often caricatured to be grim and determined. Connecting, networking, collaborating, crowdsourcing – these are actually popular keywords of traditional activism.
Internet activism became a real reality not because activists have stopped shouting and marching in the streets in order to join the so-called virtual rallies in wired world. On the contrary, activists continued to ‘occupy’ the streets while they actively shared apps and status updates online. In other words, offline activism is inevitably online as well. This is internet activism. This is activism in the 21st century.
But what separates activists from internet worshippers is the belief of the former that what really matters in the end is the political empowerment of the people. And to do this, the grassroots must learn to struggle and fight for broader political goals. They must organize not just their inbox but the whole society.
Unfortunately, there are self-proclaimed internet activists who also claim to empower the citizens but emphatically reject politics. They simply want the magic of IT to deliver the message minus the radical threat of politics. They aim to restrict the scope of internet activism by focusing on issues that can be accommodated by mainstream media. Their political strategy consists of dismissing street politics and depoliticizing the content of internet activism, or what is left of it. They engage in infinite conversations about peripheral social issues, or political concerns that do not address the roots of injustice and inequality in society. They gossip about the lifestyle of the rich, they ridicule the poor, and they assuage their guilt by lampooning corrupt politicians and shady public characters.
This brand of internet activism is embraced by closet conservatives, pseudo-reformists, and even by politicians who pretend to be social media enthusiasts.
Politics-less internet activism, not internet activism, is the problem that must be dealt with decisively. The challenge should not be simply about exhorting the netizens to support the masses but to restore politics proper in online activism.
What’s the use of persuading a Twitter user to attend an offline event organized by the state to distract the attention of the public and weaken the fighting enthusiasm of the online citizens? There is little to celebrate if netizens turned off their gadgets and integrated in the communities just so that they can spread the doctrine of cash transfers and self-demolition. This is activism that disempowers the poor and it should be outrightly rejected.
Internet activism must remain political, subversive or revolutionary even. If necessary, it must not be afraid to cut links with corporate sponsors, state functionaries, and knowledge-producing institutions to promote digital democracy. It must aggressively espouse the truth even if it would disrupt the comforts of the networks and even if it would contradict popular opinion. Otherwise, it would degenerate into a useless but arrogant drone.
*Mong Palatino is an activist, blogger, and representative of Kabataan (Youth) Partylist in the 14th and 15th Congress of the Philippines. He is the Philippines’ first blogger turned legislator and the first elected youth representative in the legislative body. As a student leader, he chaired the UP Diliman University Student Council in 2000 and was national president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines in 2001. He was former news editor of Yehey.com, a leading local web portal and columnist for UPIAsia.com from 2007-2009. He is currently the regional editor for Southeast Asia of Global Voices Online, a pioneering social media platform. He also writes a political column for the ASEAN Beat of The Diplomat web magazine. His column “Question Everything” will appear weekly at Bulatlat.com