Entering a New Era of Protest


January 2012

Rushing to put the finishing touches on his last-minute homework assignment, 21-year-old CU-Boulder senior, Dalton Becky hit an unexpected roadblock.

His eyes locked onto a daunting message from Wikipedia: Imagine a world without free knowledge.

He realized taking the easy and quick way out of his assignment was no longer an option. On Jan. 18, Wikipedia protested proposed censorship bills SOPA and PIPA by restricting access to any of their information.

“It made me realize I actually care,” Becky said. “I feel the Internet is the last thing we have that is uncensored and free, if that goes, it’s all going down hill from there.”

Previously unaware of how large a role Wikipedia played in his life, Becky decided to join the protest. Feeling threatened and out of the loop by the potential censorship he did something he never had before, he participated in the political arena.

This history making protest forced millions of U.S. citizens, including Becky, to take action against the upsetting reality associated with SOPA and PIPA.

The success of this political participation demonstrates that Internet organization is an effective form of activism. A few weeks later, protests surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s defunding of Planned Parenthood illustrated that this new form of activism is on the upward trend.

Experts say that organizing on the Internet is going to happen more and more as people realize they have the power to make a difference so easily.

Kate Starbird, a Ph.D. candidate at CU-Boulder researches the global effects of social media and closely followed the efforts of this protest. She applauds the Jan. 18 Internet blackout for changing the course of political history.

“The ability to contact so many people at once is a great way to create a movement,” Starbird said. “Technology not only gathers attention for your cause fast but fosters solidarity with a global audience.”

More than 7,000 websites including Wikipedia, Google and Reddit, joined the day long blackout, handicapping one of America’s vital lifelines, the Internet. Eight million U.S. citizens, including Becky, sent emails to their congressmen. He and 4.5 million others signed petitions urging representatives to reconsider their stances on SOPA/PIPA.

Amazing results followed.

Controversial bills can take months to pass and single day protests rarely become nation-wide spectacles of the public eye. Yet in only 24 hours this web-based protest convinced 18 senators to withdraw support from these bills, shelving SOPA and PIPA into delayed decision.

Due to the value placed upon freedom of expression in the U.S., it is not surprising that this protest directly impacted and forced millions to act out.

“The Internet is for the people, “ Becky said. “ It’s run by citizens, no one should be able to censor it, we can’t let them take this away us.”

The American public responded in fear at the realization of how expansive and direct an effect the potential censorship could pose towards everyday life.

Mansur Gidfar, a 20-year-old CU-Boulder student studying advertising, tracked SOPA and PIPA since their beginnings.

“What amazed me is that it took a blackout for people to know about SOPA because it has been around,” Gidfar said. “In the lead up to SOPA there were only two reports on major networks.”

As a leading medium in keeping politicians accountable for their actions, the Internet is revolutionizing activism. In this case, it picked up the mainstream media’s slack and took on the role as a watchdog. Twitter and Facebook were utilized to spread news regarding the protest and encouraged citizen involvement.

Internet-savvy Americans were exposed to an imminent threat and responded accordingly. Applying creative and in your face statements along with adapting to technological advancements made this protest powerful. The results showed that anyone who is passionate about an issue they want changed need only figure out how to show others how crucial and directly something affects them.

“The issue with online protest is it allows for slacktivism [sic], where people click a like button or copy and paste an email and they think they’ve done their part,” Gidfar said.  “That’s all well and good if you are keeping the fight small but what about larger issues?”

The blackout was a large-scale protest that showed America traditional protesting is outdated. Holding signs and marching the streets are no longer as effective when the Internet is available. That said, liking a Facebook post or retweeting a politically charged message are not enough either.

Though traditional protests have granted momentous changes over the past century, they are no longer as relevant to our highly digitized society.

Look at the Occupy Movement, activists have protested for months yielding media attention but little institutional change.

As citizens find their voice and realize it can be heard on the Internet, other protests are sprouting.

“It’s interesting when the protest is about technology and they are using technology at the same time,” said Starbird. “[The Internet blackout] is the test case but we see people using these tools for other kinds of protest.”

This past week alone, supporters of the Susan G. Komen Foundation expressed outrage using the Internet to protest the foundation’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Citizens banded together using social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to their advantage.

Over a short period of time, countless posts, threats and sharing of information, Susan G. Komen Foundation reversed its decision to defund Planned Parenthood.

It appears that this new type of web-based protest is already affecting multiple political spheres. It cautions political actors not to take for granted that people know how to use social media and the Internet effectively.

“Clearly there is a way to reach out a large number of people much faster in terms of getting the critical mass around spreading the ideas,” Starbird said. “People become more savvy as they keep using technology, over time we will realize more possibilities and become better at it.”


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