the unbearable lightness of online petitions

We have reached an altogether desperate state of affairs. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition are greedily snatching every last penny from the poor so as to bail out their rich friends who run the hedge funds, Miliband jr is absent without leave, and the parliamentary Labour party are barely able to muster any opposition to the most savage government programme of cuts in living memory (arguing feebly that the cuts ought to fall less swiftly on our unfortunate heads). Differences between the parties have become quantitative rather than qualitative. Indeed, the public could be forgiven for thinking that we have been led into some kind of “three-in-one party state”, although in this, we are simply following the American example, political convergence in the US having occurred decades earlier, with the Democrats barely distinguishable from the Republicans during most of my lifetime.

It happens then, that as public concern becomes increasingly at odds with actual political will, and we slowly awaken to the realisation of our own political impotence with feelings of anger and frustration, we have begun to look for new and different ways to raise our voices. And, as it happens, there is a way. Quite literally at our fingertips, a new and outstanding mechanism for getting ourselves heard. The fastest, widest-reaching, and least restricted system of communications ever devised. The internet offers potential that few ever dreamed of, and it appears to be the perfect place to restart our democracy again. Can it deliver this promise, becoming the major catalyst for real and lasting changes to what remains a deplorably unfair world? I wait in hope. I write in hope. And in hope, I occasionally double-click my support to a variety of links for petitions from the ever-growing number of online pressure groups.

Yes, online pressure groups. It all started back in 1998 with the launch of MoveOn.org, which was set up to challenge the impeachment of Bill Clinton. A campaign that had originally been called “Censure and move on”, and called upon supporters to add their names to an online petition demanding: “Congress must Immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.” Then, a few years later, after the attacks of 9/11, MoveOn.org found a different role, as representative voice of the peace movement. I must have added my own name to dozens of their petitions around this time.

Now I’m guessing that you very likely have an online petition for something or other waiting in your inbox at this very moment. Someone forwarded it to you, a friend perhaps (possibly me), and now you’re wondering whether to bother following the link and clicking your own assent. Does it actually make one jot of difference whether you open it or simply delete? After all, what discernible effect can a few personal details and the cursory click of your mouse have on those with the executive power to make actual policy decisions? Well petitions do occasionally work, no doubt, and at a local level, for instance, petitions have undoubtedly slowed the ever-expanding supermarket takeover of our high streets, stalling corporate progress just a little bit. An online petition is just a bit easier – though not that much easier – than the old-fashioned pen and ink variety. So online petitions undoubtedly have a limited impact. Have petitions ever seriously altered the wider course of government policy? Well, there was the small victory with the forests I suppose. And on an international level? You probably can’t think of any instances, but might as well click anyway, adding your own micron of persuasion or dissent.

But hold it. Perhaps it really was too easy. Do you feel, however slight, any nagging doubts? After all, I’d be surprised if you took much trouble in checking into who is actually running the campaign in question, let alone ascertaining the faces behind the faces: the foundations and individuals who provided funds to keep the campaign offices running. Or if you did, then I’m guessing you probably didn’t recognise many, if indeed any, of those faces. Perhaps the major donors didn’t want their faces shown. In the case of MoveOn.org, international financier George Soros certainly kept a low profile when, in 2004, he gave the organisation a sum in the region of £1.5 million (chicken feed to Soros but a small fortune to any growing pressure group).12

So now you’re on the mailing list. One petition after another, awaiting approval in your inbox. A whole host of internet pressure groups that you’d previously never heard of, run by groups of people you’ve never met and doubtless never will, all constantly tugging at your overly twisted arm for ongoing and renewed support. Fresh campaigns for new causes. And many of the causes you agree with, whilst others you may feel cautious about. You can be selective of course, but then by supporting the causes you approve of, aren’t you inadvertently lending support to the pressure group in a more general sense? So when MoveOn.org later put its burgeoning weight behind the Obama campaign, did my earlier support against the Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, also help to carry the vote for Obama’s election into office?

Which brings me to Avaaz. “Avaaz is a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere”, says the website blurb, which sounds great, albeit in a kind of wishy-washy corporate-speak sort of fashion. Launched in 2007, it began as a direct off-shoot of MoveOn.org, though quickly outgrowing its parent organisation, as it became the fastest expanding of all internet pressure groups. According to its own website again, the aim of Avaaz (which simply means “voice”) is to “empower[s] millions of people from all walks of life to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues”, which it achieves by setting overall priorities in accordance with results of its annual all-member polls. (And you can Click here to see the results of last year’s poll.) There is no agenda as such, no ideology, no corporate sponsors, but only a fresh approach to democracy. So is democracy effectively broadened on the basis of such internet polls? And can the world really be so radically reshaped, as Avaaz very boldly asserts, by means of regular email petitions? Co-founder and director, Ricken Patel, explained the mission of Avaaz to BBC HARDtalk in this interview broadcast in 2008.

Avaaz.org’s executive director, Ricken Patel, is interviewed by BBC’s Stephen Sackur on HARDtalk.

Back in March 2003, I put my name to a MoveOn.org emergency appeal to the UN Security Council which read: “The stakes couldn’t really be much higher. A war with Iraq could kill tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and inflame the Middle East. According to current plans, it would require an American occupation of the country for years to come. And it could escalate in ways that are horrifying to imagine.” Unfortunately that petition had no effect. It fell on deaf ears and the ensuing war cost not tens, but hundreds of thousands of lives, so many in fact, that our governments very quickly decided to stop counting. And now, almost exactly eight years on, I have received the following appeal from its offspring organisation, Avaaz: “Together, we’ve sent 450,000 emails to the UN Security Council, “overwhelming” the Council President and helping to win targeted sanctions and a justice process for the Libyan people. Now, to stop the bloodshed, we need a massive outcry for a no-fly zone.” [Bold as in the original.]

Of course, “a no-fly zone” is actually a euphemism for a military operation that necessarily involves an intensive bombing campaign to ensure the total destruction of a country’s air defences. Avaaz are saying this is a necessary measure to protect Libyans from the brutal oppression of the Gaddafi regime, which may be correct, though any talk of humanitarian intervention in Libya, or anywhere for that matter, rings a little hollow given our recent record of “humanitarian intervention” in other parts of the Middle East. So is there really nothing ideological in Avaaz’s sudden call to arms?

The email continues: “The head of NATO, meanwhile, has said that any effort to create a no-fly zone would first require a resolution from the UN. In many crises like this one, one UN country or another has vetoed strong positions — but with Libya, something different has already begun. The Security Council’s sanctions are real. UN Ambassadors say that representatives are “substantially united” that Qaddafi has to go. What’s needed now is another push from the world’s people. A resolution wouldn’t be a silver bullet — the enforcement of a no-fly zone would be dangerous and complex. But even the serious threat of one could show Qaddafi that his time is up.” Could it be that military intervention in Libya will require an occupation of the country for years to come? Or that it could escalate in ways that are horrifying to imagine? Is this what they mean by “dangerous and complex”? To get a better picture of what Avaaz might be meaning, I recommend watching their own award-winning short film “Stop the Clash of Civilisations”. This eye-catching animation paints the whole world as “dangerous and complex”, and as an infuriating confusion of shades of grey. The implication presumably being that right and wrong are matters only of opinion. With regards to where Avaaz actually stands politically, I felt none the wiser…

Avaaz currently claims to have a community of more than 7 million members, whilst admitting if pressed, that membership actually involves nothing more arduous than accepting the regular email drops (and having responded to past campaigns, presumably I too speak in the capacity of being an Avaaz member). They also claim to have “an ethic of servant leadership”; a statement of principle which can be read in two entirely different ways. They want us, of course, to understand that Avaaz are our servants, amplifying our voices and helping us to be heard, although it would be equally fair to say that “work[ing] with partners and experts to develop effective, member-driven campaign strategies”, means they may unwittingly be helping to lead the serfs by setting the agenda of their “partners and experts”.

The hard truth is that it actually makes no difference to the UN or the American or British governments what Avaaz demands, so be assured that the decision whether or not to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya was determined, as it always is, primarily on the basis of geostrategic interests. If two million people marching in London cannot change a government’s foreign policy, then what  sway do a few virtual signatures carry? When it comes to matters of such international importance, what pressure groups like Avaaz and MoveOn.org can and do achieve, however, is to help shape and inform sections of public opinion. Because Avaaz is really just another kind of brand. If we see the Avaaz logo on petition it helps to change how we feel about it. Understood this way, Avaaz is yet another small resonant component of the endlessly reverberating political echo chamber we now live in. But then, of course, you can always unsubscribe.

1 “Founded on millions of small donations, MoveOn.org hit the jackpot when it was embraced in 2004 by George Soros and his circle of rich friends, who later organized themselves into a loosely structured coalition known as the Democracy Alliance.” Click here to read full article from The Center for Public Integrity.

2 “The Democratic 527 organizations have drawn support from some wealthy liberals determined to defeat Bush. They include financier George Soros and his wife, Susan Weber Soros, who gave $5 million to ACT and $1.46 million to MoveOn.org; Peter B. Lewis, chief executive of the Progressive Corp., who gave $3 million to ACT and $500,000 to MoveOn; and Linda Pritzker, of the Hyatt hotel family, and her Sustainable World Corp., who gave $4 million to the joint fundraising committee.” Click here to read full article from the Washington Post.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, September 11th, Uncategorized

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