The Power And Problems Of Internet Activism

The Power And Problems Of Internet Activism

The Article: From SOPA to Cispa: The Power And Problems Of Internet Activism by Ryan Nafziger in The Speckled Axe.

The Text: On January 18, 2012, an already declining piece of legislation under the name of House Bill 3261 was blown out of the sky. Opposition had gone viral. Social media sites were boiling with the same collective anger that Joseph Kony would incite just a few months later. Internet institutions like Wikipedia and Reddit as well as thousands of smaller sites shut down for the day. Google claimed to have collected seven million signatures in opposition. Several of SOPA’s Congressional sponsors quickly withdrew their support.

Just two days later, the bill’s original sponsor, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, pulled the bill from the house floor while acknowledging the concerns about SOPA’s potential impact on free speech and the discourse of information over the Internet. The Internet had won. An army comprised of tweets, profile pictures and status updates had defeated industry giants like the RIAA and MPAA.

Almost four months later, a similar bill sits before the House and I bet you haven’t seen many Facebook status updates about it. That bill is House Bill 3523, or the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (called CISPA). CISPA differs from SOPA in purported aim to stop online security threats instead of online piracy, but its danger is the same. In essence, CISPA places our private information in the hands of government and corporations without due process. If Facebook thinks you’re a security threat, it can take your private information and give it to the government without a search warrant. Thanks to the broad wording of the bill, theft of intellectual property constitutes a security threat. Any illegal music, movies you download – or even that Shepard Fairey Obama poster you were so excited about changing your profile picture back to after these four long years – are potential grounds for the seizure of your information and its sharing between government and corporate intelligence organizations.

So what explains the different response in internet activism between SOPA and CISPA? It’s not like in the last hundred days Americans have jumped the ideological fence. Why isn’t Wikipedia shutting down over this? Why haven’t you already read fourteen CISPA articles today (and apologies if you have)?

It’s because you got so sick of hearing about SOPA. You don’t want to read another article about some bill that some guy on the Internet is claiming will ruin America because you’re fatigued. Admit it: you’d rather forward another one of your aunt’s funny dog picture emails or ‘like’ another Facebook post. You’ve moved on – and that is the biggest weakness of Internet activism. It has a refractory period. After the powerful collective synergy that can accompany Internet activism comes crashing down like a wave, it goes back to sea. We’re left patting ourselves on the back thinking, “Thank God that’s over, I really just want to see more pictures of pets and weddings and what my friends made for dinner.”

Unfortunately, that’s not how the rest of the world works. When KONY 2012 made the rounds, it reached over 80 million views in less than three weeks. If you have a Facebook profile and a pulse you’ve heard of the short, controversial documentary about Ugandan guerilla fighter Joseph Kony. For a few weeks the Internet was outraged because of the war crimes committed by Kony. But a small handful of weeks later, who cared? Nothing had been done and Kony was old news. Any remaining outrage was over inconsequential inaccuracies in the documentary or the humiliating behavior of its creator Jason Russell. The Internet operates at a different speed than the real world; the half-life of digital outrage often peters out before it even leaves a footprint.

Famed humanitarian, philanthropist and would-be Internet activist Niccolo Machiavelli once said, “Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.” The different reactions to SOPA and CISPA seem to illustrate that point. It’s not that the Internet community doesn’t care – it really does, as the success of SOPA opposition shows – it’s just that it has limits.

If the Internet is going to succeed as a tool for change, it must convert quick bursts of support into equally quick results. Activists will have to organize the mass attention they’ve received and achieve more than “raising awareness”. The key to a successful online campaign isn’t getting 80 million people to listen to what you have to say – it’s getting just a few of those people to actually do something.

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