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Net activism has the power to change the world

11th January 2001

Guardian Unlimited

A new generation of campaigners is just a few clicks away, writes Mark Flannagan, director of Advocacy Online

What do a former wrestler, Christian Aid and McDonald's have in common?

Answer: They are all - in their own way - winners, users or losers of net activism.

In the case of former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, he used the net to collect, organise and inform volunteers in support of his bid to be Governor of Minnesota. He won and his site still exists - - containing news and views from Governor Ventura.

Christian Aid urges visitors to its site to send virtual postcards to Waitrose and is seeking to build support online for this and future campaigns.

And activists working on the internet to challenge McDonald's business ethics continue to be a thorn in its corporate side.

However, anyone who takes a look at the websites of a whole range of campaigning organisations can see there is no consensus about what constitutes "net activism". Getting involved with organisations via their websites means different things on each site. Some organisations just want you to donate funds; others want you to download information about how to lobby your MP while others seek limited, single participation through one specific action - such as virtual postcards.

In the wider world - away from websites run by organisations - it is impossible to gain a clear view about who is doing what, which individuals are banding together to become online campaigning communities and what difference anyone is making using the power of the internet.

In the US, where the belief is that everyone is ahead on new technology, the debate about the impact of net activism is in progress. In his book, former Clinton aide Dick Morris presents a view of a world where the internet returns power to the people. He argues that as the internet allows and indeed requires politicians to communicate more directly with voters, the power will pass to individuals who are prepared to get involved via the internet, if only by voting about issues online.

Morris notes that the political parties in the US are catching on. He cites Louisiana, where Republicans contracted with an internet company to allow online voting in the presidential nominations - and not a "dimpled chad" in sight.

Here in the UK, some commentators say that initial success of last year's fuel protests was down to the use by activists of new technologies - including email - to join together quickly in the right place at the right time. And the media have repeatedly stated that the emergence in Seattle - and other cities - of groups of dedicated activists prepared to cause massive disruption was down to use of the internet to communicate without the state intervening.

For some, there is already a real threat from net activism - one they are seeking to deal with. A number of PR companies have established "net intelligence" units that monitor damage being done to companies by net activists and then take steps to deal with that on behalf of clients.

Thus although we cannot say net activism is already changing the world, we can sum up net activism in one word - potential.

The internet has potential to turn visitors to websites into online campaigners. Particularly the young, who use the net more but get involved less, have the potential to become activists within three clicks on their PCs. Instead of donating money they can be encouraged to get involved. As one observer of the US voluntary sector has said: "While the direct mail universe is aged, online activists are young."

So, can we really use the internet to activate supporters and change the world?

The answer is yes. Many organisations just need to pursue to a logical conclusion the small steps they have already taken. By developing their websites in a positive, activist friendly way, they can tap into the potential of net activism. They can build in all the campaign functions they would ordinarily use in their offline activities. And, importantly, they can build databases of committed online supporters who can be contacted instantly on any issue.

With almost one third (32%) of UK households connected to the internet and 45% of British adults - equivalent to more than 20m people - having accessed the internet at some time, it is time for the potential of net activism to be unlocked. Who knows where it may lead? Maybe one day, with the power of net activism, we will see the inauguration of President Ventura?