When twenty-four young campaigners working from their laptops can take on a mining giant with an annual turnover of over $51 billion and force it to back down, it signals a seismic shift in the balance of power.
Online activism group Sum of Us has no permanent office space, and its tiny staff work from homes and coffee shops spread across the globe. Despite rarely meeting face-to-face, this truly international organisation builds coalitions of online and offline groups with a combined membership of four million people.
By mobilising this huge network, Sum of Us convinced mining conglomerate Rio Tinto to abandon plans to build the world’s largest open cast iron and copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Campaigner Angus Wong, speaking from LA but based in Vancouver, explains the mine would have devastated the local environment, but the online petition launched in partnership with US-based NGO Earthworks put huge pressure on the company. “The timing of Rio Tinto’s decision made us believe that the power of the petition really made a difference,” he says.
Activists around the world have been quick to realise the power of the internet to inform and organise. E-petitioning has become the most recognised form of online activism, but after people click, Sum of Us works hard to encourage them to engage further, by attending a meeting or writing directly to politicians.
Campaigner Hanna Thomas, based between London and Tel Aviv, emphasises the hard work involved. “Campaigning doesn’t change when it shifts online,” she says. “My experience of how we put together strategy or tactics is the same, the big difference is that we can have an incredibly rapid response, and mobilise a huge number of people.”
While Sum of Us, and other groups such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees, have won important victories and engaged millions of people, many remain sceptical.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales acknowledges the power of online communities but argues they are limited. “It is important that we are not naive about the possibilities,” Wales said in a recent interview with the New Statesman. “Yes, we can use online tools to educate others and organise to demand positive change. But real activism also necessarily involves going physically to make demands, and that’s inherently risky and requires great courage.”
For a generation of young people who grew up to see the disastrous invasion of Iraq go ahead despite millions marching in cities around the world, traditional protest seems outdated. More recently, after the failure of the Occupy movement and the slow and painful death of the Arab Spring, the limits of going to the streets are clear.
Both Angus and Hanna come from backgrounds in conventional activism but ended up at Sum of Us because they realised the power it had to affect real change. “I’m giving it a shot trying to make companies more responsible from the outside,” says Angus, who used to work as a corporate social responsibility consultant. “I’ve found this to be way more effective.”
The more life shifts onto the internet, the greater the potential for online activism. But it really becomes powerful when it connects with groups in the real world. As when Sum of Us recently funded the Canadian Hupa- casath First Nation tribe in their legal battle against a giant oil company.
“That’s where we can have real impact,” says Hanna. “Helping smaller, grassroots groups do stuff that they wouldn’t be able to do alone.”
Although groups like Sum of Us are skilled at using the internet to bring people together, our online spaces are becoming more and more dominated by big tech compa- nies – many of whom are colluding with government, as unveiled by Edward Snowden’s revelations. How can we ensure the internet remains an open space, free from powerful interests?
“I think just being creative,” says Angus. “There is power in numbers, and reaching more people is effective to counter the money that these corporations have. But this is a really crucial moment to curb the rise of corporate and government control over this new tool that we have, and I think they are quickly gaining ground. This really is the time to push back and fight.”
Find out more about Sum of Us.
This article appeared earlier in the year in Huck 44 – The Tommy Guerrero issue.