New Media Tools: No guarantee of Toronto G-20 protest success 

"It was one of those great days, one of those elemental occasions in the world's affairs, when the people rise, and act for themselves. Some organization and preparation had been made; but, from the nature of the case, with scarce any effect on the events of that day...It was the people, in their first capacity, as citizens and as freemen, starting from their beds at midnight, from their firesides, and from their fields, to take their own cause into their own hands."

With these stirring words, the 19th century American orator Edward Everett described the April 1775 rising of New England patriots that initiated the struggle for American independence. In the above paragraph, Everett eulogized the patriots' capacity for self-organization against the British army, in the absence of any central authority to focus the colonials' efforts.

If he were alive today, one wonders what Everett would think about the anti-G-20 protests planned in Toronto, Canada this week.

Given his interest in the organizational aspects of the War of Independence, what might be of most interest to Everett is how activists today use new media and social media. He’d be keen to learn about how activists can use these media as organizational tools to identify like-minded people, to build up lists of allies, to mobilize them for specific actions at specific times through texting or Twitter or email, and then to publicize those actions through YouTube, etc.

These techniques are all being used as you read this, to try to summon large crowds to appear when President Obama and the other G-20 leaders arrive in Toronto.

In 1775, the closest thing the American patriots had to "social media" was probably when the Sons of Liberty used to gather at Boston's Green Dragon Tavern and read Sam Adam's latest pamphlets aloud, so illiterate people could get the gist of his arguments for the rights of the colonies.

It wasn’t hi-tech, but activities like this helped circulate ideas in early America, and influence people’s thinking about how the colonies should deal with the British.

While Everett wouldn't need much persuading that we've come a long way technologically since 1775, he'd also recognize the limitations of new media and social media-engineered protests, if he happened to visit Toronto yesterday.

On Monday evening, about 100 protesters marched in downtown Toronto, chanting the slogan "we're queer, we're fabulous, we're against the G20" and beating drums as TV cameras filmed the event.

Beyond creating a temporary spectacle that stopped traffic and caused commuters walking to the subway to pause and take a look, the impact of this event (promoted via new media) won't last much beyond Tuesday morning. The protest had no apparent political agenda, beyond gathering like-minded people to walk together. Its impact on public opinion will be negligible.

Everett would smile at this. He'd see that in 2010, even with these flashy media tools at our fingertips, influencing public opinion through websites, protests, pamphlets, speeches, etc. remains very much a hard-to-master art, rather than a science.

And in that respect, in 2010, there's still a lot we can learn from the ideas and organizational smarts of those brave patriots of 1775.


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Neil Hrab

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