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Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age. He is associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank and a founding member of Christianity Uncut.

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Resist Trident!

Wheel Stop Trident 1.jpg

© Hannah Brock

Work at Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire was disrupted this morning as the police spent three hours struggling to remove Christian protesters who were chained across a gateway.

Last week, cyclists rode from London to Berkshire, visiting communities affected by cuts on their way to AWE and calling on politicians to save £100bn ($148bn) by not renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

Earlier this month, a singing flashmob performed an oratorio against Trident in the lobby of the Parliament. Last month, there were arrests of peaceful protesters at the Faslane base in Scotland, where Trident submarines are based.

Anti-Trident protests have become so frequent that even I am struggling to keep track of them.

Take any one of these actions by itself and you can dismiss it as insignificant. But between them, they represent a growing determination not only to resist Trident but to force it onto the political and media agenda at a crucial moment in time.

Next year, the British Parliament will take a decision on whether to renew Trident or not. The government’s desire to renew it makes a mockery of British ministers telling Iran that it must not develop nuclear weapons.

The result of the general election on 7 May will affect our chances of defeating Trident’s renewal. Conservatives and the Labour leadership are committed to Trident, but polls suggest the Scottish National Party (SNP) may hold the balance of power.

The SNP, along with the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, have suggested that Trident abolition would be a condition of a deal to prop up a minority Labour government. Further, a significant number of Labour MPs are opposed to Trident.

It is vital not to be naïve. All these signs of hope could crumble to dust. Unlike the Greens and Plaid Cymru, who have a strong peace tradition, the SNP favour membership of NATO.

Even if the SNP stick to their principles, a minority Labour government could rely on Conservative votes to get Trident through. While a survey has found that three-quarters of Labour candidates oppose Trident, I doubt whether three-quarters have enough integrity to vote against it.

Suzy Stride, Labour’s candidate for Harlow, accused me last year of undermining the chances of tackling poverty in Britain by encouraging Labour to oppose Trident. She implied that if Labour opposed Trident, they would lose the election and allow the Tories to continue with extreme austerity.

Her comments are a reminder that much of the Labour Party is stuck in the 1980s, when opposition to nuclear weapons was blamed for losing them elections. Public opinion has moved on considerably. Polls consistently show that a majority of the public oppose Trident renewal, especially at a time of sweeping cuts to public services.

Suzy told me that Trident was not relevant to people’s everyday lives. The political and media establishment persist in discussing it as if it were some sort of abstract academic issue.

Trident would, of course, seem much more relevant if it were used, or if there were a major accident (and let’s not forget that every machine that humans have invented has at some point gone wrong). But it is also relevant now.

The willingness of ministers to spend billions on weapons of mass destruction gives the lie to the claim that their policies are about saving money and cutting the deficit.

We can shift the national debate on Trident by constantly linking peace, economics and the environment. The cyclists who travelled from London to the Atomic Weapons Establishment last week – under the name Wheel Stop Trident – are a good example.

They departed from the offices of arms giant Lockheed Martin. On their way, they met local people in Ealing campaigning to save their hospital from closure and visited a renewable energy site near Reading.

As Laura Stringhetti of the group Ealing Save Our Hospitals said to them, ‘The government tells us that austerity is necessary as there is no money left, while there is money for nuclear weapons and wars’.

The cyclists constantly drew attention to a newly published research by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), showing how the skills of workers in the arms industry are similar to the skills needed for the development of renewable energy.

Renewables would provide more jobs and better jobs – jobs that are aimed at enhancing life, not destroying it.

These are the messages we must combine if we are to push Trident on to the front pages before polling day; if we are to remind MPs that opposing Trident will win, not lose, public support; if we are to challenge the whole militarist-capitalist mindset on which the retention and renewal of nuclear weapons relies.

Let’s make sure that acts of resistance to Trident become more frequent, stronger and better publicized as polling day approaches. It’s a tough fight, but we can win.

A different legacy: lessons in peace from the First World War

poppy field

WazimoU under a Creative Commons Licence

Exactly one hundred years ago, on 28 July 1914, socialist representatives from across Europe gathered in Brussels. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Much of the rest of Europe was expected to join in.

French socialist leader Jean Jaures stood with his arm around the co-chair of the German Social Democrats, Hugo Haase. They insisted that whatever governments and capitalists might do, working-class people must refuse to fight each other. Thousands of people marched against war in cities throughout Europe.

A few days later, Jean Jaures was shot dead by a pro-war French student in a Paris restaurant. The French socialists, like their counterparts in Germany and Britain, split over the war, with the majority in all three countries voting to support it.

If you believe certain historians, that was the end of the opposition to the war. Recently, other historians have drawn attention to the peace movements that some are so keen to overlook. In Britain, the semi-illegal anti-war newspaper The Tribunal had 100,000 readers at its height, while over 6,000 people were locked up for opposing the war. Anti-war feeling played a major part in the revolutions that ousted the rulers of Russia and Germany, as well as in anti-colonial rebellions from Mali to Ireland. The French government only narrowly survived a string of mutinies in 1917. The US socialist Eugene Debs was still in prison for anti-war campaigning when he received over a million votes in the presidential election of 1920.

As we campaign for peace today, what can we learn from our predecessors of a century ago?

Firstly, any peace movement must be international. ‘We do not recognize the Austrian, the Serb, the Russian, the Italian or the French,’ declared a German syndicalist newspaper on the eve of war. ‘We know only brother workers. To prevent this enormity we hold out our hand to the workers of all countries.’ The next year, activists from countries at war endured police interrogations and public suspicion to travel to the Women’s Peace Conference in the Netherlands. The event proved that solidarity across boundaries is more than possible.

For a modern equivalent, have a look at the Facebook pages of Israel-Loves-Iran and Iran-Loves-Israel, set up by Israelis and Iranians who believe they have more in common with each other than with warmongers in either country.

Secondly, we must not be fooled by justifications for war. In 1914, many on the left were dismayed to find that so many of their comrades supported the war. In Germany, pro-war socialists argued that they had to fight against Russian Tsarist autocracy. In Britain, the pro-war left claimed to be fighting against imperialism in resisting the German invasion of Belgium.

As we have seen with Iraq and Afghanistan, there are always some on the left who are persuaded that this time war is different, that this time we must unite with capitalists and oppressors to fight different capitalists and oppressors. It’s about time we learnt from history and stopped believing it.

Thirdly, we can be united despite differences. The British peace movement was split, not between socialists and Christians as is sometimes assumed (many peace campaigners were both) but over the question of accepting ‘alternative work’ to military service. Some were prepared to do so if the work did not help the prosecution of the war. Others argued that even working on a farm freed up a farmworker to go and kill. These ‘absolutists’ formed the majority of the thousands imprisoned in Britain for their anti-war views, although they were joined by others locked up for illegal activism. Despite sometimes bitter differences, records show a remarkable understanding of other activists’ positions. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading anti-war group in Britain, managed to keep its diverse members broadly united against militarism.

By now, you may be shouting at your computer screen, ‘But they were not effective! They didn't stop the war!’ I have no illusions about the failures of the World War One peace movement. But to dismiss them as ineffective is to overlook the rebellions seen in Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Elsewhere, negativity about war became a far more acceptable attitude by the end of the war than it was at the beginning. Public sentiment in Britain forced the government to abolish conscription and most wartime censorship, despite a clear desire on the part of several ministers to keep them both.

Yet, as Israeli bombs rain down on Gaza and the Western media talks up a new conflict with Russia, we could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed. That’s why we must learn from the activists of 100 years ago, building peace campaigns that are united, diverse and international. If we don’t learn from our history, we are condemned to repeat it. 

Why David Cameron is wrong to call Britain a 'Christian country'

church

Christian policies for a Christian country? Poverty and inequality have soared since the Coalition government came into power. Wikimedia commons under a Creative Commons Licence

Who knew that the question of Britain’s religious identity was so newsworthy? First David Cameron declared that we should be ‘more confident about our status as a Christian country’ Then a group of secularist writers signed an open letter insisting that Britain is basically a non-religious society. What seems to have received less attention is the reaction of British Christians themselves.

Since Cameron’s comments two weeks ago, the media have been full of claims and counter-claims about the role of faith in Britain. Some point out that 59 per cent of the population declared themselves Christian in the last census. Others remind them that this was down from 71 per cent only 10 years before. A number of non-Christian religious leaders have said they are fine with seeing Britain as a Christian country. Others have been more cautious.

The media seem largely to have assumed that Britain’s Christians have welcomed Cameron’s remarks. In reality, they were met with criticism from Christians on both the right and left.

On the one hand, the homophobic lobby group Christian Concern was quick to accuse Cameron of ‘double standards’ for the ‘contradiction’ of declaring Britain to be Christian while supporting same-sex marriage. I sometimes wonder if the Bibles in Christian Concern’s offices have the thousands of passages about economic justice cut out, so that the organization’s staff can focus obsessively on a few passages about sexual relationships snatched from their context.

Rightwing Christians were not the only ones to object. There was a storm of anger on social media from Christians on the left. True, I am one of them – but I’m far from being the only one.

There are two good reasons for leftwing Christian objection.

Firstly, Christian faith is not about claiming privileges for ourselves that are denied to others. This is essentially what we are doing if we insist that the Church should be linked to the state or that one religion should be privileged over others. Jesus encouraged his followers to love their neighbours as themselves. He never spoke of a ‘Christian country’ but of the Kingdom of God in which ‘many who are first will be last and the last first’.  

What a contrast to the society that David Cameron proclaims to be Christian. This leads on to the second, and greater, reason for Christian objections to Cameron’s claim.

Poverty and inequality have shot up in Britain since the present government came to power. Food banks have handed out around a million food parcels in the last year – an increase of 163 per cent on the previous year. Rough sleeping has increased by over a third in three years. Unemployment figures are kept down by forcing unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or have basic benefit payments cut if they refuse.

I am not suggesting that the policies of a different party would lead Britain to resemble the Kingdom of God. The New Testament vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth involves radicalism, sharing and equality on a level beyond that of even the most progressive human societies. But there are few governments working against this vision more strongly, and leading their country away from it more quickly, than the government of Britain.

I cannot read Cameron’s mind and heart. I do not claim to be a better Christian than him. His views may have been motivated by deep faith. They may have been an attempt to appeal to ‘traditional’ voters or to respond to the clergy who have signed letters to him condemning policies that lead to food poverty. They may have been a mixture of all these things. What I can do is comment on how we respond to him.

Some of the same church leaders who have spoken out against benefit cuts were seen last week welcoming Cameron’s statement and insisting that Britain is a Christian country. While I’m delighted that they are attacking austerity, I doubt they will be so effective with one foot on the side of the poor and the other in the camp of the privileged.

Church leaders need to step away from the wealth and power which have been compromising Christianity for centuries. Nonetheless, we don’t need to rely on leaders alone. There are many grassroots Christians showing the way by joining with others to resist injustice. As the balance of recent media coverage reminds us, we need to be more effective in getting this message heard. 

DSEi protesters ‘Not Guilty’ – but will the real villains ever face the dock?

Protesters at court

Outside court the five acquitted display a banner that illustrates the need to demonstrate. © Andrew Dey

‘Superglue protesters avoid jail’ declared a headline on ITN last week. As one of the protesters in question, I’m pleased to report that we didn’t only avoid jail. We were acquitted.

The judge declared the five of us – Dan Woodhouse, Chris Wood, Chloe Skinner, James Clayton and me – to be ‘Not Guilty’ of aggravated trespass. Along with others, we had blocked an entrance to the London arms fair last September by kneeling in prayer and singing hymns.

I’m now wishing all the best for the other peaceful protesters, both Christian and otherwise, who will be on trial later this month for their own actions at the London arms fair. The fair, known euphemistically as Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi), is held every second September in east London.

A significant moment in our trial came when a Ministry of Defence (MoD) policeman gave evidence for the prosecution. I won’t give his name, as he came off rather badly and I don’t want to humiliate him. He was the officer who arrested me and I can honestly say that I couldn’t hope to be arrested by a nicer person. Nonetheless, there was an amusing moment when he testified that while being arrested, I was ‘shouting loudly throughout in a religious manner’. Or as I would call it, ‘praying’.

More importantly, this officer admitted under cross-examination that the police on duty at DSEi had been briefed about possible activity by protesters but been told nothing about illegal behaviour by arms dealers. This despite the fact that on the day we were arrested, two companies were thrown out of the fair for selling illegal torture equipment.

This should hardly have surprised the police: companies selling illegal weaponry had been removed from DSEi on five previous occasions. But each removal has took place only after the issue had been raised in Parliament or the media. None of these companies were removed proactively by the organizers or police.

Furthermore, the dealers in torture equipment and cluster bombs have never been arrested or prosecuted. Only peaceful protesters are arrested at DSEi.

So I was not surprised to hear an MoD police officer testifying that he and his colleagues were not briefed about possible illegality within the arms fair. On the police footage of our arrests shown in court, we can be heard offering to move if the police investigate the arms dealers. The Chief Inspector in charge can be heard refusing to do so. Chloe Skinner testified that one police officer told her that investigating arms dealers was ‘above my pay grade’.

This all adds to the evidence that however decent the motivations of individual police officers, the police are deployed at DSEi for the benefit of the arms dealers rather than the impartial enforcement of the law.

Yet another reminder that the British authorities are in bed with the arms industry.

In the end, the judge declined to rule on whether the presence of torture equipment gave us a ‘reasonable excuse’ not to move. Instead, she acquitted us on the grounds that we had reasonable grounds to expect that the police would give us another warning before arresting us.

I have been asked several times if the trial was stressful. Of course it was, but it was made a lot more bearable by the support and encouragement of hundreds of people. Many of them turned up at court, others offered their prayers or sent messages via email, Twitter, Facebook or post. Two people (separately) wrote poems about us. I hardly feel I deserve all this, but it’s a reminder of the diversity of people who oppose the arms trade.

It was particularly humbling to receive messages of support from Bahrain, where people risk far more than I have done to resist a regime that was invited to the London arms fair to buy weapons. This is a regime that has frequently turned its weapons against its own people.

I am delighted with the verdict. I am even more delighted by the support we have received. But I will feel happier when people who do arms deals with dictatorships on the streets of London are standing in the dock that my friends and I have recently left.

Peaceful protesters end up in court

DSEI protest

Protesters staged a die-in at last year's DSEI arms fair in London. Campaign Against Arms Trade under a Creative Commons Licence

Symon Hill, author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Digital Revolutions for New Internationalist, is on trial next week for a nonviolent protest outside an arms fair. He writes:

As some of you know, I will be on trial next week, along with four others, for nonviolently obstructing one of the entrances to the London arms fair in September last year. We linked arms in the entrance, sang hymns and prayed. Behind us, weapons of war and death were on sale.

We will be on trial on Monday 3 and Tuesday 4 February for refusing to move when requested by the police. We have pleaded Not Guilty. We will point out that there was illegal activity going on inside the arms fair – two companies were found to be selling torture equipment, but were not arrested or charged

We stand in solidarity with others who will be facing trial later in February for other peaceful protests against the London arms fair.

Caroline Lucas (Green MP) and Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) have publicly supported us and many other people have spoken out against the arms fair. We have been deeply moved by the messages of support we have received.

I’m delighted to say that several people have organized a peaceful vigil outside court on Monday 3 February. We’re really grateful for this. It will begin at 9am, with a moment of silence at 10am to remember victims of the arms trade.

This is the plan:

What: A peaceful presence outside the court, to show solidarity and to remember those who are victims of war as a direct result of the government’s support of the arms trade. The organizers have banners and leaflets, but feel free to bring messages of peace in whatever form.

Where: Stratford Magistrates’ Court, The Court House, 389-397 High Street, London, E15 4SB (a short walk from Stratford station).

When: Starting at 9am on Monday 3 February, with a vigil-moment at 10am. We may be in court for some time and some have kindly offered to be there until the end of the day. And then again on 4 February from 9am if the trial continues.

If you can’t make it, please join us in prayer and/or reflection on the day. You can also follow developments on Twitter, by following @PutDowntheSword and using the hashtag #StopDSEi. Facebook includes an event page for several arms fair-related trials including this one, while others are leaving messages of support on the Christians Against the Arms Fair page.

I love Britain. The Daily Mail hates it

A beach in Wales

What is Britain?...A beach in Wales © Lydia James

What is Britain? This question doesn't seem to have been asked much in the many arguments around the Daily Mail's vicious attack on Ed Miliband's father. Ralph Miliband, the Mail maintains, 'hated Britain'.

Is 'Britain' simply a geographical area? Or does the Mail really mean the United Kingdom, which is a political entity? Or the British people? We talk so much about countries that we can easily forget that nationality is an abstract and ill-defined concept.

The Daily Mail's deputy editor Jon Steafel now seems to have come up with a definition of Britain that few British people would recognise.

Defending his paper's claims, he attacked Ralph Miliband's 'views on British institutions, from our schools to our royal family to our military, to our universities to the church (of England)'.

Steafel's implication is that to oppose powerful institutions in Britain is to hate Britain. This is nonsense. There is more to Britain than its rulers. It is possible to love a country's people, to love it as a place and to oppose its political and economic systems. Indeed, love for a country's people should surely lead to a desire to be rid of unjust institutions that harm them.

I'm not too keen on the United Kingdom as a political entity, but I love the places and people within it. You may be surprised to hear that I also love many aspects of its politics.

I love British traditions of free speech, religious liberty and fair trials (although they're abused). We have these things because people went out and campaigned for them, not because our rulers kindly handed them down.

I love the radical traditions of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Radical egalitarian forms of Christianity became popular in these islands in the seventeenth century, just after England had abolished its monarchy (over a hundred years before France did so; sadly, it didn't last).

I love the stunning scenery in Snowdonia and the Antrim coast. I love the mix of cultures, languages and religions on the streets of London. I love the friendliness of Cardiff and the feeling of homecoming as the bus goes over Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. I love the rural Midlands roads that I walked down as a child, greasy spoon cafes in Birmingham, the sight of the castle in Edinburgh and the passion of people whose poverty is no barrier to resisting injustice. I love the British people.

The Daily Mail stirs up hatred of the British working class, British Muslims, British LGBT people, British people who were born outside the UK and British people who claim benefits. It is the Daily Mail that hates Britain.

Originally posted on Ekklesia.

Symon Hill is an Ekklesia associate and co-founder of Christianity Uncut. His latest book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be ordered in the New Internationalist bookshop.

David Cameron: don’t blame the internet for society’s ills

No entry sign

Access could also be restricted to online support tanja van den berg-niggendijker under a Creative Commons Licence

One of the main features of the internet age is the tendency of politicians to misunderstand the World Wide Web – thinking they can control it, or treating wider social problems as if they had been caused by it.

Now it’s the turn of British Prime Minister David Cameron. He wants to restrict access to pornography, saying he is concerned about the safety of children. I am sure that the vast majority of people are keen to see an end to child abuse. Most of us would back policies likely to reduce it. Sexual violence is widespread in Britain, as recent revelations about the BBC and various churches have reminded us.

But we as a society are deeply hypocritical about sexual violence. Newspapers whip up fear of paedophiles on street corners while ignoring the reality that most child abuse takes place in the home. The ministers who talk about protecting children have cut benefits that help parents to spend time with their children. People who are raped continue to be blamed for the actions of rapists. The last government brought in a law that restricts a great deal of amateur and ‘homemade’ porn while doing nothing to challenge exploitation in the massive corporate pornography industry.

So it’s no surprise that David Cameron’s proposals seem highly unlikely to reduce abuse. At the same time, they may harm young people and others who turn to the internet to find help.

Politicians who try to control internet access are sometimes motivated by a desire to suppress dissent, sometimes by the more laudable aims of preventing child abuse or terrorism. In either case, they rarely succeed.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried to close down access to Twitter. It took activists only four hours to get it back. Later that year in London, the acting head of the Metropolitan Police considered shutting Twitter in response to riots. Only after enquiring about it did he discover that he had no authority to do so. In any case, the rioters were communicating mainly on Blackberry Messenger.

It is difficult to believe that any state that gains new powers over internet access will only ever use them to control access to pornography. But even if we accept that this is possible, the policy is not effective on its own terms. Cameron wants to produce a ‘blacklist’ of words and phrases that will be blocked if people search for them. Sadly, child abusers will not take long to work their way around this. It will be almost impossible to keep up with the development of code words. Are our rulers really this naïve about the workings of the internet?

Cameron and his supporters in the media seem not to understand the way in which the internet affects communication. The internet makes things easier. To put it crudely, it makes good things easier and it makes bad things easier. A blacklist would stop entirely legitimate searches about sexual health and sexual ethics. Will gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender teenagers no longer be able to visit sites on which they can discuss their struggles and fears? The internet has been a lifeline for many young people struggling with their sexuality. It is a bitter irony that David Cameron has announced this policy less than a week after same-sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales.

David Cameron became somewhat confused when it was pointed out that he has no definition of pornography. To talk about all websites mentioning or depicting sex as if they were the same is an insult to the victims of abuse.

An adult couple who consensually spank each other and upload a video depicting this can hardly be compared to the exploitative corporate pornography industry, let alone to a group of child abusers. Of course, even with ‘homemade’ porn, there are problems with children gaining access to it, but we will not solve these problems by encouraging a general fear of sex, rather than tackling the massive social problems of abuse, misogyny and rape culture.

It is both sad and worrying that the very people who are cheering most loudly for this law – such as the Daily Mail and rightwing Christian groups – are also the first to condemn sex education in primary schools. If we are serious about fighting sexual abuse, we need to empower children through meaningful education on sex and relationships from an early age, helping them to report abuse, to respect their own and each other’s bodies, to understand the practical and moral choices available to them and to help them build respectful and mutually fulfilling relationships as they grow up.

David Cameron, like most people who blame the internet for society’s ills, risks creating the illusion of tackling abuse while reducing young people’s access to information and help. His proposals are worse than useless. They are actively harmful.

Symon Hill is the author of Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age.


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.

Digital Revolutions - The record-breaking petition

It’s easy to get fed up with online petitions.

If, like me, you receive a constant stream of requests to sign them, you might well be wondering if there’s any point. As they become ever more common, the number of signatures that are likely to make an impact keeps going up and people sneer at them as an example of lazy ‘clicktivism’ that will never make any difference.

Internet petitions should not be relied on too much. But in April 2013 came a powerful reminder that they should not be dismissed either. A petition that was started on the spur of the moment looks to have broken records. It is possibly the fastest-growing petition of all time. The petition was started on a Monday morning and was making front page news by Tuesday.

It began on 1 April, when the British coalition government marked April Fools’ Day with the introduction of swingeing cuts to the welfare state, snatching money from some of the poorest people in the country. At the same time a tax cut for people ‘earning’ over £150,000 ($228,765) per year came into force. Redistribution from the poor to the rich rarely comes more blatantly than this.

That morning, BBC Radio 4 interviewed a benefit recipient who had been left to live on £53 ($81) per week. The next interview was with Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary. The interviewer asked him if he could manage to live on £53 per week. ‘If I had too, I would,’ he insisted.

Among the listeners left angry and upset was Dominic Aversano, a shopworker and musician. He went online to create a petition calling for Duncan Smith to live on £53 per week for a year. It would have meant a 97 per cent drop in his income.

The number of signatures shot up faster than Aversano could have imagined. By the evening, people were signing at the rate of several hundred per minute. Just before midnight, the petition topped 100,000 signatures. The next morning, two national newspapers, the Daily Mirror and the Independent, led with the story of Duncan Smith’s claim, mentioning the petition. Within a week, the petition had more than 450,000 signatures.

The online petition site Change.org said that it was the largest and fastest-growing petition they had ever hosted. Ian Duncan Smith was forced on the defensive, dismissing the petition as a ‘stunt’. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, tried to avoid the same treatment by refusing to say whether he thought he could live on £53 per week himself.

Middle-class voters who had heard claims in rightwing newspapers about the supposedly high level of benefits were suddenly confronted with the figure of £53 per week. For many of them, this has probably become the figure that will come to mind when the subject of benefits comes up. This may be the petition’s most enduring and important impact.

How did an online petition become headline news? I can imagine many people who have started petitions feeling frustrated that they received far less interest.

One factor, of course, was the topicality of the subject. The cuts were dominating the news. Ian Duncan Smith made things easier for activists with his unbelievable claim. But the nature of the petition probably also made a difference. Petitions calling for specific policy changes with regard to the cuts tend to attract lots of support, but nowhere near the level of the Duncan Smith petition. Potential signatories may feel unaffected by the policy concerned or feel cautious about expressing a view without knowing all the issues.

In contrast, Aversano’s petition poked fun at Duncan Smith’s words. It was both a piece of satire and a campaigning tool. It highlighted the reality that many ministers live in a different world from the people affected by their decisions. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer were all born to privilege, attending some of the most expensive schools in Britain.

One lesson to take away from this is that petitions may be more useful in drawing attention to reality than they may be in bringing about a specific change. Following the Duncan Smith petition, there was a spate of satirical petitions of this sort. When Margaret Thatcher died the following week, the Christian anarchist campaigner Keith Hebden started a petition calling for her funeral to be funded by corporate sponsorship – in line with her own neoliberal principles.

The incident is a reminder to activists to be more tactical in the use of petitions. But it’s also a reminder that some of the most effective actions begin when somebody gets angry and switches on their computer. Not everything can be planned.

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Boycott Facebook for a day


People will boycott Facebook for 24 hours over tax. Photo: birgerking, under a CC License.

Mention online activism and you can trigger some extreme reactions. At one end of the spectrum are people who believe the future is all about Facebook, Twitter and online petitions. At the other, those who scoff at the very idea, seeing it as an excuse for laziness and pointing out that Facebook and Twitter are powerful corporations that we should be opposing.

This week, the issue has become even more complex. Activists are now using Facebook – to campaign against Facebook.

Last year, Facebook 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 in recent months.

On Saturday 1 December, anti-tax avoidance campaigners will stop using Facebook for 24 hours and they are urging people in Britain, and around the world to join them in the boycott. The action has been 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 is not in itself going to harm Facebook’s profits. But the organizers of the action know this. I do not think they are naïve. Even if they are particularly successful at gaining support, only a small percentage of Facebook users will take part. What is less easy to predict is how those users will influence their Facebook friends.

It is an irony of Facebook that its very structure helps its users to criticize it from within. Somebody who is unaware of the boycott will log on to Facebook as normal on the morning of 1 December. Say they have 300 ‘friends’. 298 are also logging on as normal. But two have changed their status update (the night before) to say they are switching off the site for the day because of tax dodging. In many cases, this will link to a site set up by Church Action on Poverty that displays the Facebook logo with the letters changed to read ‘tax dodger’.

The number of people who hear about the issue in this way will be far higher than the numbers who join the boycott.

It seems to me that this tactic is about awareness-raising, even if there is potential for it to develop to a higher level. 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 last year’s royal wedding, a time marked by a widespread crackdown on activists.

Despite this, campaigners have been creative. I have just finished writing a book, Digital Revolutions, about activism and the internet. While researching it, 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. This year, 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 reputational damage online, backed down. Others did so after the cyber challenge was accompanied by nonviolent protests and occupations. Some are still resisting the pressure.

The relationship between activism and the internet is complex. Those who think the net will save the world, like 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 communication tools are available. Today, the internet provides some, but not all, of those tools.

If you have any thoughts on this issue, I would be pleased to hear them. Drop me a line, but not through Facebook – I won't be using it tomorrow.

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