Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advocacy in the Information Age.

Just a short post this morning. I’m sorry for letting this issue take over the blog this last week, but it’s a damned important one and I still feel like I’ve got more to say, even as I learn more about the situation.

I saw GetUp’s ad in the Australian yesterday. I think it’s quite wonderful, regardless of whether you believe in every cause they advocate for (I’d wager a majority of members don’t; certainly I don’t), that there is an organisation like this that can get people together to campaign on just about any issue. Groups like GetUp, or MoveOn in America, have the potential to become as crucial to what we think of as democracy as the free press itself, or the republican model of government.

Mass action has always played a part in the development and evolution of liberal democracy. But most such movements have had a charismatic leader around which the people have rallied and who has been able to use the power of the people to effect the change he desires; Martin Luther King Jr for the American civil rights movement is the most obvious example. But things are even more organic now that rallies can be arranged with a week’s notice on Facebook — we can see the first seeds of this potential in the flashmobs that have been in vogue in the most recent decade, but the exact same techniques are now being used for ideological and political purposes. There’s a rally in Melbourne on Friday evening in support of Julian Assange. I have no idea who organised it, the only reason I know about it is the Facebook invitation that arrived in my email inbox this afternoon, barely 48 hours before it’s due to begin.

This is the sort of movement that the Internet seems almost tailor-made to support; one that a massed audience might not be motivated enough to make a big fuss about, but that a few thousand people (nearly 100,000 signed GetUp’s Wikileaks letter to the USA) care about a lot. The sort of number that isn’t the critical mass necessary to form a movement, but big enough that — if it can be coördinated well — it can make a significant difference. The Internet, and savvy groups like GetUp with social networking tools, make such coördination possible. As Rule 34 says that no matter what it is, there is porn of it somewhere on the Internet, and Rule 51 says that no matter what it is, there is somebody for whom it is a turn-on, so there ought to be a rule that says that no matter what it is you believe, you will be able to find someone on the Internet who agrees with you.

This isn’t always a good thing, of course — that depends on what you believe in the first place — but the sheer wealth of opinions and ideas floating around out there makes it much easier to triangulate your own position and find arguments to defend and test it. It also helps you find compromises and common ground; a weaker version of your claim may find you more supporters and be more defensible itself. In the case of the present campaign, even those who disapprove of what Wikileaks has done may sign the petition because what it calls for is for the site’s operators not to be labelled terrorists or enemy combatants, and for the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial to be preserved, which even the guilty in our civilisation are supposed to deserve.

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