Yesterday I attended an Internet and Politics conference convened by Harvard's Berkman Center. Berkman's mission is to "explore and understand cyberspace; to study its development, dynamics, norms, and standards." I was on a panel to discuss various aspects of online mobilization. I relayed some of my experiences working with Hillary Clinton and the challenges (and opportunities) for campaigns and organizations communicating, fundraising and organizing using the web.
Toward the end of the panel discussion, I said there's a tendency to expect too much of the medium and that despite the dramatic growth of the Internet as a political tool, we have a long way to go before it becomes a lever of true power for individuals and a mechanism for sweeping reform. As an example, I recounted the horrific story of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a 13-year-old Somali girl who was gang-raped and then stoned to death in a packed stadium as "punishment" for adultery, an unfathomably cruel fate for this innocent child.
I noted that if we can't stop something like that using the Internet, then we should acknowledge the medium's limitations. I was being a bit hyperbolic of course - I realize that it'll take a lot more than technology to address the atrocities that take place across the globe and to deal with the savage elements of human nature. But the point stands that a critical measure of the Internet's role is how effectively it is used to combat violence, poverty, hunger, and the many ills that plague our planet. That question is addressed in depth in CauseWired, a new book by Tom Watson (a friend and fellow blogger). Tom offers insight into how a new generation is using technology for advocacy and activism, covering everything from Kiva and DonorsChoose to Facebook Causes and other aspects of the new "wired philanthropy."
One universal aspect of effective activism is raising awareness and there's no doubt that the web is an ideal tool to do that, something I wrote about in a recent post about the Internet-enabled global conversation:
For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the media's constraints, aided by the optional - and liberating - cloak of anonymity.
This is transformative, not just because it is a web-driven enhancement of traditional political and social mechanisms (as we've seen with organizing and fundraising) but because it is a radically different way that the world processes information and understands itself. If there's one thing that makes the 2008 election an inflection point, it is this: that the context, perception, and course of events is fundamentally changed by the collective behavior of the Internet's innumerable opinion-makers. Every piece of news and information is instantly processed by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes.
There's no better example of the web's awareness-raising function than a post from my UN Dispatch colleague Mark Goldberg in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. Mark writes:
Witness is an international non-profit organization that uses video and online technologies to shine a light on human rights abuses around the world. For the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, Witness staff discuss some of the videos and images that have touched them over the past few years. At the end of the video, viewers are asked what image has opened our eyes to human rights. ... What images most symbolize human rights to you? Send an email to undispatch AT gmail.com and we will update this post with your response. Please indicate if you would like to keep your response anonymous.
I strongly encourage you to read Mark's entire post, to see the accompanying videos and images, and to submit your own. They are a moving - and disturbing - reminder of what we are up against. Let's hope that as the Internet becomes more central to communication and organization, it will enable us to work together to finally bring this kind of brutality to an end.