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Mouse Pad Activism

Henriette von Kaltenborn-Stachau's picture

Avaaz.org’s “Clash of Civilization” Video won the YouTube 2007 Award in the Political/ News category. The video is a well-done yet somewhat simplified demonstration of stereotypes and image creation. It also talks about the power of public opinion and individual responsibility to act; in this case it urges viewers to sign a petition calling for real Middle East peace talks. I was happy to see it win first prize. The video has a sweet and creative earnestness to it.

Its website describes Avaaz.org as a “new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want.” The organization – with a reported membership of 1.26 million subscribers - covers topics ranging from environmental protections, human rights, and poverty to corruption and war. Arguing that globalization faces a huge democratic deficit as international decisions are shaped by political elites and unaccountable corporations and not the views and values of the world’s people, it calls on global citizens to use a new model of internet-driven people-powered politics to influence international decision-making.

The Avaaz.org campaigns range from the original to the useful old hats. A lot of effort goes into organizing petitions and though I generally agree with Avaaz’ notion of a “democratic deficit” in international affairs, I really do wonder about the usefulness of those, particularly when they call for change in authoritarian environments. That said, I have to admit that I signed two of them myself; the causes seemed worthy and it was a fast and easy way “to do” something, or at least feel like I did.

In a democracy a government monitors and measures public opinion as it sets the parameter for political decisions. In the end, the government’s re-election depends on popular support. Public opinion in international affairs does not carry the same weight as it does in a democratic national context, especially not in an authoritarian context. The democratic mechanisms of accountability do not apply. For an authoritarian regime to learn that a large number of individuals disagree with some of their policy positions is somewhat inconsequential. The same lack of cost and consequence is probably also the reason that so many people sign these petitions. Minimalist activism; it takes only 24 seconds and a click with the mouse to become a better person – instant gratification.

To carry weight collective positions need to lead to actions that matter to the government at hand. Customer boycott; investment boycott; travel boycott; sports boycott – these measures hurt. We learned that from the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The international community is primarily linked through economic activities it is here where organized large-scale collective action has impact. From a country’s investment policy to individual shopping decisions; possible economic measures are many. But that would certainly take more than 24 seconds and involve more than a click with the mouse; it could possibly come with a customer price-tag. It might still make us feel better – maybe even all of us in the long run.