Several weeks ago, Time Magazine announced that ‘The Protester’ was its person on the year 2011. The adage that if you do not ask, you will not get, resonates well with many people. Protest is not new. It is simply when a person or group objects, by words or by actions, to particular events, policies or situations; it is a form of complaint. Certainly, 2011 showed that mass protest can effect change, even in places where the ears and eyes of politicians and policy makers seemed to have been deaf and blind for decades. But, protest begins with one person, and one person can drive mass protest well.
My attention has been sparked recently by the extent to which protest has started in a small way and continued and expanded with the use of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. The term ‘digital agitation’ may fit well. No longer do groups or individuals need to venture from their homes to get their voices heard. More generally, the Internet now allows protest to be fast, widespread and effective: beyond social media, mass e-mail messaging, or blog blasting, or website bombardment all spread the word at warp speed.
As Verizon found out a few weeks ago, when people want to complain, facilities such as Twitter, Facebook and Google + can spread their ire like wild-fire. An online Change.org petition, organised by activist Molly Katchpole, sparked a backlash against Verizon’s proposed $2 ‘convenience fee’. Verizon now finds itself also under some scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission. This is a tactic Katchpole used earlier in 2001 when Bank of America attempted to institute a similar $5 fee for those who use its debit cards for purchases. People can see quickly that they are not powerless to effect changes in corporate or government policies.
We have seen for several years now, in protests in many countries how technology helped spread the word about protest events, tactics and more. But, governments (eg, in Sudan) have not been slow in realising that power and cutting off access as a means of maintaining their control (eg, in Syria).
This week, we saw again that the electronic form of protest may be the quickest and most effective way to get complaints and protests aired and heard. The Komen Foundation found itself under a barrage of online protests after its initial decision to stop funding to Planned Parenthood.
But, does that mean that places that do not have wide access to the Internet and governments or enterprises that do not welcome opposition may see a tighter hand on the spread and development of such access? This may put another twist to the term ‘social divide’.