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Digital Revolutions - Fighting Facebook on its own ground

There is a paradox at the heart of cyberactivism. People use the internet to campaign against the powers and policies of transnational corporations. In doing so, they often find themselves relying on other transnational corporations, such as Facebook and Google.

The situation reached a new level of irony at the end of 2012, when activists used Facebook to campaign against Facebook.

The previous year, Facebook had paid only £196,000 ($314,000) in UK corporation tax, despite sales of £175m ($280m). They are one of several web-based corporations, including Amazon and Google, to have hit the headlines for legal (but immoral) tax dodging.

On Saturday 1 December 2012, anti-tax avoidance campaigners in the UK stopped using Facebook for 24 hours. The action was called by Church Action on Poverty, which has made resistance to tax dodging by the wealthy a key part of its work.

A 24-hour boycott sounds trivial. It did not harm Facebook’s profits. But the organizers of the action knew this. I do not think they were being naïve. They knew that only a small percentage of Facebook users would take part. What was less easy to predict was how those users would influence their Facebook friends.

It is an irony of Facebook that its very structure helps its users to criticize it from within. Imagine someone who was unaware of the boycott logging on to Facebook as normal on the Saturday in question. Say they had 300 Facebook ‘friends’. On the boycott day, 298 logged on as usual. But two changed their status update (the night before) to say they were switching off the site for the day because of tax dodging. In many cases, this linked to a site set up by Church Action on Poverty that displayed the Facebook logo with the letters changed to read ‘tax dodger’.

The number of people who heard about the issue in this way was far higher than the numbers who joined the boycott. I suspect that some sort of regular boycott day could reach a lot more. Limited as this sort of tactic is, it is the latest example of a clever use of the internet as part of a wider campaign.

The use of social networking sites owned by corporations poses ethical and practical dilemmas for activists. Such sites have played an important role for many social movements. In the Tunisian revolution, Facebook allowed people to know about protests in other parts of the country when the state media was refusing to report on them. On the other hand, both Facebook and Twitter appear willing to take action against campaigners. Facebook has still given no satisfactory explanation for closing the pages of leftwing groups in Britain ahead of the royal wedding in 2011, a time marked by a widespread crackdown on activists.

Despite this, campaigners have been creative. While researching my book, Digital Revolutions, I was inspired by the many creative ways that people have found to challenge corporations online. They have often worked best when combined with physical activism.

Ahead of the London Olympics, companies including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola agreed to waive the tax exemptions that they were offered as sponsors – following an online campaign by 38 Degrees. However, this came after occupations of tax-dodging stores by UK Uncut. I suspect these companies would have been less keen to act had they not feared similar occupations during the Olympics.

Also in 2012, unemployed activists and supporters of Boycott Workfare used Twitter and Facebook to challenge companies that were taking advantage of unpaid labour. Some, frightened of the online damage to their reputations, backed down. Others did so after the cyber challenge was accompanied by nonviolent protests and occupations. Some continued to resist the pressure.

The relationship between activism and the internet is complex. Those who think the net will save the world, and those who think it has nothing to offer, both make the same mistake. They avoid the complicated relationships between people, power, money and technology. Effective activists have always used a combination of whatever means of communication are available. Today, the internet provides some, but not all, of those tools.

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