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Mention online activism and you can trigger some extreme reactions. At one end of the spectrum are people who believe the future is all about Facebook, Twitter and online petitions. At the other, those who scoff at the very idea, seeing it as an excuse for laziness and pointing out that Facebook and Twitter are powerful corporations that we should be opposing.
This week, the issue has become even more complex. Activists are now using Facebook – to campaign against Facebook.
Last year, Facebook paid only £196,000 ($314,000) in UK corporation tax, despite sales of £175 million ($280 million). They are one of several web-based corporations, including Amazon and Google, to have hit the headlines for legal (but immoral) tax dodging in recent months.
On Saturday 1 December, anti-tax avoidance campaigners have pledged to stop using Facebook for 24 hours and they have urged people in Britain, and around the world to join them in the boycott. The action has been called by Church Action on Poverty, which has made resistance to tax dodging by the wealthy a key part of its work.
A 24-hour boycott may sound trivial. It is not in itself going to harm Facebook’s profits. But the organisers of the action know this. I do not think they are naïve. Even if they are particularly successful at gaining support, only a small percentage of Facebook users will take part. What is less easy to predict is how those users will influence their Facebook friends.
It is an irony of Facebook that its very structure helps its users to criticise it from within. Somebody who is unaware of the boycott will log on to Facebook as normal on the morning of 1 December. Say they have 300 ‘friends’. 298 are also logging on as normal. But two have changed their status update (the night before) to say they are switching off the site for the day because of tax dodging. In many cases, this will link to a site set up by Church Action on Poverty that displays the Facebook logo with the letters changed to read ‘tax dodger’.
The number of people who hear about the issue in this way will be far higher than the numbers who join the boycott.
It seems to me that this tactic is about awareness-raising, even if there is potential for it to develop to a higher level. It is the latest example of a clever use of the internet as part of a wider campaign.
The use of social networking sites owned by corporations poses ethical and practical dilemmas for activists. Such sites have played an important role for many social movements. In the Tunisian revolution, Facebook allowed people to know about protests in other parts of the country when the state media was refusing to report on them.
On the other hand, both Facebook and Twitter appear willing to take action against campaigners. Facebook has still given no satisfactory explanation for closing the pages of leftwing groups in Britain ahead of last year’s royal wedding, a time marked by a widespread crackdown on activists.
Despite this, campaigners have been creative. I have just finished writing a book, Digital Revolutions, about activism and the internet. While researching it, I was inspired by the many creative ways that people have found to challenge corporations online. They have often worked best when combined with physical activism.
Ahead of the London Olympics, companies including McDonald's and Coca-Cola agreed to waive the tax exemptions that they were offered as sponsors – following an online campaign by 38 Degrees. However, this came after occupations of tax-dodging stores by UK Uncut. I suspect these companies would have been less keen to act had they not feared similar occupations during the Olympics.
This year, unemployed activists and supporters of Boycott Workfare used Twitter and Facebook to challenge companies that were taking advantage of unpaid labour. Some, frightened of the reputational damage online, backed down. Others did so after the cyber challenge was accompanied by nonviolent protests and occupations. Some are still resisting the pressure.
The relationship between activism and the internet is complex. Those who think the net will save the world, like those who think it has nothing to offer, both make the same mistake. They avoid the complicated relationships between people, power, money and technology. Effective activists have always used a combination of whatever communication tools are available. Today, the internet provides some, but not all, of those tools.
This article is adapted with grateful acknowledgement to New Internationalist magazine. Additional links here: http://www.newint.org/blog/2012/11/30/facebook-tax-boycott/
(c) Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and the forthcoming Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age. He is associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank and a founding member of Christianity Uncut.Tweet