Modem warfare

John Vidal , Guardian, UK

Wednesday January 13, 19999

E-mail and the Net are revolutionising the way environment, human rights and social justice groups work. John Vidal on the new democracy and ideas emerging from cyberspace and their potential to counter oppression

Twelve environmental justice protesters and a video activist walked into Shell UK's London HQ and occupied three offices last Monday morning. Almost the first thing that Undercurrents reporter Roddy Mansfield did was to set up his small digital camera and link it to a palm-top computer and a mobile phone. Despite Shell turning off the electricity and cutting the phone lines, within minutes he was broadcasting the protest live on the Internet, and e-mailing to the mainstream press. By 4 pm when the last people were evicted five 'broadcasts' had been made.

Reportage of the future? A new tool of democracy? Illegal, irresponsible behaviour? Take your pick, but just as sixties' students took over printing presses to further disseminate their political message, so today's activists have turned as one to new electronic technologies.

The Web and e-communications have revolutionised environmental and social justice campaigning and, arguably, helped to nurture a new north-south dialogue about democracy, social justice, development and human rights in an increasingly globalised world.

Many non-governmental groups now depend on the Web and electronic mail to motivate, activate and communicate their uncensored messages. Most groups have camcorders and Web sites; all have e-mail.

The obvious advantage of electronic communication is the ability it gives campaigners to network quickly and cheaply. Using e-mail and 'list servers' - where the same message can be sent to any number of electronic addresses in a few minutes - information can be passed around the world so that other groups can be alerted and global campaigns mounted quickly.

A classic case of electronic media being used as a grassroots weapon of democracy, says Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, was the massive international campaign to ambush the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). If this inter-governmental agreement had been, as expected, nodded through Western parliaments, it would have superseded national laws. It was being debated in secrecy by OECD countries until a French environmental NGO exposed what was going on.

Within days, the ramifications of a treaty which would have given massive legal and economic advantage to transnational corporations around the world, were being assessed by environmental and other groups. The MAI was interpreted as anti-democratic, unjust and a serious threat to civil society.

The campaign to stop it depended on the Web and spread like wildfire. After two years, more than 600 citizens' groups, including unions, workers parties, consumer organisations, development and environmental groups in dozens of countries were exchanging information, co-ordinating opposition and alerting politicians, the media and civil servants.

'Governments were ambushed by the detail of the information coming from other countries. I could speak to the British Government about the situation in France before they knew it. It [the campaign] created chaos, undermining individual countries' positions,' says Juniper. By November negotiations had been abandoned.

Campaigners have also learned how to put companies into a spin. Shell, BP, Rio Tinto, McDonald's, Monsanto and many others with global ambitions have met ferocious global attacks in the past few years. Equally, the Net has been used as a defence by many campaigners trying to save wildlife, countryside or cultures. Indigenous groups and southern NGOs have all learned who their friends are in the north and have been quick to appeal for help, and many northern groups have learned tactics from developing countries.

The globalised Web has become, says Juniper, 'the most potent weapon in the toolbox of resistance to globalism and the rampant free market.' This is ironic because globalism itself depends on the same technology to whiz trillions of dollars around the world every day. 'It has encouraged activism. People are more aware of what others are doing,' he says.

For protesters it is heaven to be able to disseminate information across the world without having to persuade journalists, programme makers or editors. 'Our resistance is now as transnational as capital itself,' says a member of Reclaim the Streets (RTS) in London. RTS is the British link in a loose coalition of groups called People's Global Action. These come together, via the Web, for co-ordinated events like last year's Global Street Party which was celebrated in 30 places in 20 countries on the same day. On June 18 this year, there will be a series of co-ordinated demonstrations in the world's financial centres.

Just as corporate globalisation and a plethora of international laws have led to a broadly similar 'neo-liberal' national politics around the world, so a globalisation of opposition is developing along with new links between NGOs.

'E-communication allows far greater dialogue between like-minded groups and individuals, encouraging a consensus of views. Remarkably similar political and philosophical critiques of large-scale developments, corporate affairs and capitalism itself are now being developed in rich and poor countries,' says one commentator.

The new dialogue is often leaving flat-footed mainstream media lagging. Within hours of the Far Eastern smogs, the Amazon burnings, and flood disasters in Bangladesh, Web sites were full of eye-witness accounts, and e-mails were alerting aid agencies and development groups.

'E-mail meant we could respond far more quickly and effectively as well as inform the public here,' said a Christian Aid spokesperson. 'We knew what relief was necessary far earlier and could develop rehabilitataion programmes quickly.' The days when media were controlled by a few are effectively over. In the new world of e-communication, they are seen as increasingly elite, censorious agents of the establishment. Organisations like Oneworld, based near Oxford, transmit reams of information on the environment and social justice, receiving more than a million hits a week on their Web site which connects more than 250 social and environmental justice groups worldwide. Perhaps the most astonishing is McSpotlight website which in less than three years claims it has been visited more than 65 million times by people wanting to know about that dark side of McDonald's The success of the sites does not necessarily translate into change: McDonald's has continued to expand its outlets and profits in that time and the environment is still being trashed everywhere.

The downside is also important. Overload of information is now common and the democracy of the Web can be at the expense of reliability of the information it offers. 'It's difficult to know who to trust, who is reliable and what information is correct,' says one development worker. 'We have to be on guard all the time.' Much of the new media is avowedly partial, subjective and committed. Pressure groups prefer to give only one point of view which can be dogmatic and often hysterical. This, say some, is a natural response to the equally flawed mainstream media's long neglect of certain issues, and the equally biased points of view of many journalists. 'It allows us to say what we want to say,' says Roddy Mansfield of Undercurrents. 'That's democracy.'

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