Most people are familiar with the street protestor: an image springs to mind of a stridently chanting group beneath a large, slogan bearing banner. Possibly less familiar is another form of activist: the digital activist. Digital activists also bear slogans but, instead, they post them as graphics on social media along with a plethora of hashtags and tag handles. They are the activists hunched over a computer screen, (this computer can range from a phone to a desktop), calling out for social and political changes via email and social media.
To clear up one myth about digital activists, it’s not a new form of cyber spam. Digital activists are individuals. Their messages aren’t simply sent out by a server. Nor is it anonymous. Any digital activist worth their salt will include their true full name, postcode, email address and social media accounts in any letters or emails they send, petitions they sign or messages they post on social media. On some petition sites it’s mandatory to include your postcode, especially if it’s a parliamentary petition, to show you’re a member of the country that’s being governed. If you didn’t include your true email address or land address in a letter or email you send, how is the recipient (with luck) going to reply to you? Digital activists are also called ‘keyboard warriors’, known for acting aggressively and often anonymously online. I apologise if you’ve come across such a user online but, just as with any type of activist who goes too far, you can’t tar us all with the same brush.
During Extinction Rebellion’s major protests last September a digital rebellion was set up, in sync with the actions taking place on the streets. This was mostly due to the restrictions imposed by COVID19 but proved very popular with people for a range of reasons, from being unable to take time off work or school to people who were unable to attend due to disability. The main focus of the rebellion was on the Climate and ecological emergency (CEE) bill, encouraging people to write personal letters and/or phone their local MPs, asking them to support the bill. I’ve already written a post about the CEE bill entitled ‘On the subject of magic’. Other actions included messaging and phoning Dominic Cummings, then the U.K’s treasurer, demanding the U.K government stops investing in fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel investment banks. A Free the press action was also held. Whilst street protesters blockaded climate change denying news corporations around the developed world, their fellow keyboard counterparts painted the streets with posters and spread honest information on climate change and the environmental crisis around social media. Digital rebellion proved so successful that it has continued both to run and to grow since then. Many other campaign organisations have similar networks of campaigners such as Greenpeace, Wild Justice and #M.E action.
Is the qwerty keyboard truly mightier than the nuclear bomb?
“Does digital activism truly have any impact?”, many people will likely ask. The same thing could be asked of any form of activism. My personal philosophy is simple: nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you do nothing to change the world, nothing will change. However, if you attempt to lobby for change, however small and seemingly ineffective your strategy might seem, the likelihood of the world changing is greater.
One tool in the digital activism toolkit that people seem to be particularly sceptical about are petitions. As anybody who follows me on social media will know, I’m a great signer and sharer of petitions as well as running one of my own. I never share them via personal email however. I feel contacting people via personal email is too ‘in their face’. Petitions have been a way of lobbying parliament since very early times, around the medieval period, when King Edward I told the peasants (ordinary people) to write down a list of their complaints to give to him. According to an article I recently read, although petitions don’t always result in the desired outcome being achieved, petitions still wield some influence in raising awareness of issues of concern to ordinary people (Kelly, J).
A personal example for me of a petition having effect is the U.K’s NICE (National institute for clinical excellence) guidelines for M.E/CFS. In 2017 it’s guidelines for M.E/CFS were coming up to its date for review but NICE declared that no review would take place as no changes were needed to be made. The NICE guidelines had already been hugely criticised by the M.E/CFS patient community and this announcement was met with outcry. A petition was started by The M.E association which attracted 25,000 signatures. This was far more signatures than The M.E association had expected it to receive and showed there was deep discontentment towards the NICE guidelines amongst a large number of patients. After the success of the petition, NICE declared that a thorough review would be carried out. Almost four years later, a draft of the new guidelines has been published. The draft guidelines are radically different from the previous guidelines. I just hope that the guidelines remain the same when it’s finally published in August!
An update on the CEE bill
The CEE bill alliance is currently running two petitions, one in honour of the second anniversary of the government’s declaration of a climate and ecological emergency and the other to protect bees. On May 1st 2019 the U.K. government declared that the world was indeed in crisis, in a climate and ecological emergency. Since then the government has still failed to act, unwilling or unable to meet all but one of its 25 targets to reach net zero emissions as set out in the Paris agreement, and continued in very much a ‘business as usual’ manner. This is only prolonging and worsening the situation we’re already in, a situation which is already being felt by people around the world. The petition, Demand the government backs climate pledges with legislation, aims to change this. Sign it here.
Demand the U.K government pass a law to protect our bees is a petition which highlights the key role the CEE Bill would be able to play in protecting our declining wildlife, including bees. Sign it here.
Another popular digital weapon are Twitter storms. These use hashtags and tag handles to cook up a storm on Twitter, uniting people’s tweets to bombard the target recipients. The penultimate goal is usually to get the issue ‘trending’ on Twitter, thus raising its profile.
On 26th of March the CEE bill alliance held such a storm along with a real-world banner drop. It was prompted by the second reading of the bill being first allocated to a later date (March 26th) and then cancelled altogether. Participants were encouraged to record a short video message expressing their support for the bill, using the hashtags #ceebill and #climateemergency. The Twitter storm was a success with #ceebill trending on Twitter.
Unfortunately the Twitter storm didn’t result in the CEE bill being rescheduled during the last parliamentary session. This means that it, along with all other bills that failed to pass into law during the last session, have fallen from the parliamentary agenda. However pressure is on for it to be reintroduced in June, once parliament has reopened. In the previous parliamentary session over 100 MPs signed the bill and during the council elections over 1,400 candidates pledged their support for it (Bradbury, A, 2021). I can’t stress enough how important I believe this bill is. I believe it’s the only bill which truly has the strength to turn this crisis around and create a better world for everyone, human or non-human, in the U.K. and abroad. The CEE bill is largely a grassroots alliance of ordinary people. Please join me onboard!
On a positive note
One issue I’ve become increasingly aware of recently is how negative people find social media particularly Facebook. Two of my friends left Facebook because they found it too negative. How do we continue to tell the truth without being constantly negative and burning people out though? I’m sure different people will find their own ways of dealing with this problem. My personal solution is by posting upbeat stories of successful environmental activism along with links to videos and articles about the natural world, to remind people of the beauty and wonder of what I’m striving to protect.
Notes on Gaia is also called Gaia activism on social media platforms.
Follow Gaia activism on Facebook.
Follow Gaia activism on Twitter.
Kelly, J, We the undersigned…, BBC, Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/SZS0zzeSOh/Petitions (Accessed: 29th May, 2021)
Bradbury, A, (2021), What’s happening with the CEE bill between parliaments?, May 10th 2021, Available at https://www.ceebill.uk/whats_happening_with_the_bill_between_parliaments (Accessed: 29th May, 2021)