Are digital protests an effective way to fight for changes?

credit: Yana Sashkina

The relevance of digital activism has significantly increased due to the coronavirus outbreak that has locked billions of people at their homes. Having provided people with the ways to digitally materialize not widely represented issues in reality, Internet platforms have been extensively and rapidly gathering users with the aspiration to protest from all over the world over the past decades. 

Government permits are not required and there is no need to get to the site of a strike. Actually, all you need is a good internet connection, basic stuff we all have at home, and the desire to protest. The digital sphere has invented many tools for liberation, defying state restrictions, connecting like-minded people, influencing public opinion and mass mobilizing. 

But how effective are these digital protests and strikes, compared to traditional offline ways? What are the advantages and disadvantages of protesting online? Can it bring enough publicity, that is essential for meeting protesters’ demands? And do online protests contribute to bringing the protesting communities closer?

Online climate strikes, protests against domestic violence and feminicide and rallies against political decisions around Europe are here to answer these questions. 

Digital climate activism around the world

Climate strikes against the fossil fuel industry were originally planned as street marches all over the world. But the coronavirus outbreak made protesters change the course. Now, instead of big crowds they hold mass video calls, instead of marching with banners they post photos with hashtags. 

#FridaysForFuture (#FFF) is a movement that began in August 2018, after Greta Thunberg and other young activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every Friday, calling for protests against the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter, and it soon went viral. On April 24, adapting to new lockdown realities, #FFF organized a 24-hour live stream to hear from strikers and scientists all over the world.

Arshak Makichyan, an activist from Russia and a participant of the #FFF movement, said that for him protesting online brought many advantages. “You don’t need permission from the government, so everyone can join an online strike.” Though Arshak is now really busy, attending webinars with climate experts and organizing thematic strikes every week to let people share their thoughts on different topics, he misses offline protests. “You can’t meet with your friends face-to-face at online protests. Plus, offline strikes are more visible,” the Russian climate activist confessed.

Another young climate striker Annika Kruse from Germany has a different opinion: “A big disadvantage of striking online is that we have less people participating, because striking online is not as anonymous as going to a demonstration. In addition to that, if we only post slogans and put hashtags on our own social media, we only reach our own bubble.”

Online strikes were not so common before coronavirus outbreak, but climate activists were already familiar with promoting their actions through social media. Now, it’s the right time to activate their online potential. Speaking about platforms the strikers use, Annika mentioned Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Online strikes were not so common before coronavirus outbreak, but climate activists were already familiar with promoting their actions through social media. Now, it’s the right time to activate their online potential. Speaking about platforms the strikers use, Annika mentioned Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

According to Annika, online strikes do not bring the activists closer because they basically do not see each other, however, this means of protesting makes them stronger, as they learn to handle the activism in different circumstances.

Not only individual strikers seem to be searching for digital opportunities for their actions. Greenpeace Belgium protested by projecting a hologram demonstration for the first time ever in front of the EU Council building in Brussels. The signal to European decision-makers was the following: “Bail out people not corporations, we won’t stay quiet! Change the system: invest in people and planet, not polluters”.

A part of hologram “Bail out people not corporations, we won’t stay quiet! 
Change the system: invest in people and planet, not polluters”
Credit: Tim Driven/Greenpeace

Faiza Oulahsen, a Greenpeace EU Covid-19 spokesperson, said that she could not find any disadvantages of protesting online. She thinks that the sense of urgency, solidarity and dedication to fight among activists is stronger than ever. Speaking about the efficiency of digital activism, Faiza Oulahsen stated that “we should not underestimate the power of online protest. To give an example, the #metoo movement was online movement and it brought together a lot of women who suffered sexual harassment. Its impact is undeniable.Nowadays, social media offers a powerful platform to citizens.”

Online campaign against domestic violence and feminicide in France

It’s not only the #meetoo movement that recognizes the importance and the impact of fighting for women’s rights in the online dimension. “Collages contre les féminicides” is an initiative that unites more than 46,000 followers on its Instagram account to bring the awareness to extreme violence that French women face. 

Virtual collage with slogan on Eiffel Tower: “Stop observing women as an object you can use”. Credit: Instagram account @collages_feminicides_paris

France’s interior minister Christophe Castaner informed that reports of domestic violence across the country have increased by more than 30 per cent since the country went into lockdown on March 17. Before the lockdown, a group of nearly 100 women had been covering the streets of Paris at night with the names of violated women, their stories and calls for political actions to solve the problem.Now they are searching for online means of protesting.

“The idea of our collages is to take a place in the outer space, this is a strong political act, because women are excluded from public space. Patriarchy locks them in their homes, we are not safe and we are not welcomed in this patriarchal system. Now we are unable to use offline dimension with real walls and streets to fight for our rights because of the pandemic. However, we continue to stick our messages on our windows, we continue to draw slogans to use after the lockdown and even make virtual collages,” said a member of the movement’s Facebook group. She refused to name herself, wishing to remain an anonymous. She highlighted that their movement has horizontal structure and no one is privileged to speak on behalf of all participants.

Virtual collage with slogan “In France, 1 in 10 women have been raped or will be in their lifetime.” Credit: Instagram account @collages_feminicides_paris

Virtual collage with slogan “Patriarchy kills” Credit: Instagram account @collages_feminicides_paris

This autumn one night “Collages contre les féminicides” activists covered the Louvre’s glass pyramid with the inscription “Women are killed, the nation is in danger” but it was immediately erased by policemen. Now, sitting at home, they сan cover the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, the Luxor Obelisk and other usually crowded places without a chance of their virtual slogans being removed. 

Their community always used social networks to unite people and spread their ideas. They posted photos of their slogans on the walls of Paris and informed followers about feminicide cases. 

“This is how we have become known all over Europe,” said a woman, who moderates messages in the “Collages contre les féminicides” Facebook group. 

“The pandemic shows once again that our community is very united. The links between the activists has not been broken, and after lockdown we will have even more supporters, we will be even more determined. Nothing will silence our anger, we continue to fight against feminicide and injustice.”

Femicide is a big issue in France. In 2019, 149 women were murdered by a partner or an ex-partner, it is 29 more victims than in 2018, according to “Féminicides par compagnons ou ex”, a volunteer organization that monitors reports of feminicide cases in the press throughout France. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out against domestic violence, saying it shames France that a woman is killed every three days.

“We don’t forget you”(to victims of feminicide in France) Credit: Instagram account @collages_feminicides_paris

credit: Instagram account @collages_feminicides_paris

‘Coronavirus-friendly’ rallies against politicians’ decisions

“Collages contre les féminicides” does not find that the government does enough to solve the problem. In Poland, some people are also dissatisfied with government’s actions. In mid-April, Poles occupied social media and used their cars to protest against draft bills to limit abortion rights and to criminalize sex education in Poland.

Draginja Nadazdin, Director of Amnesty International Poland stated that “attempting to pass these recklessly retrogressive laws at any time would be shameful, but to rush them through under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis is unconscionable.”

Car demonstration in Warsaw. Slogan “Women’s strike”. Credit: AFP

Two controversial bills made strikers use their cars to block the central roundabout in Warsaw. Honking their horns and shouting slogans, women opposed the proposal to ban abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities, the case is among few remaining circumstances justifying abortion in the majority Catholic country. 

Marta Górczyńska, a human rights lawyer from Poland, took part in this ‘coronavirus-friendly’ protest. For her it was the first time going around the city in her car since the lockdown begun.

“Given the circumstances, it seemed to us that the government is trying to push through the highly controversial bill using the lockdown and the ban of assemblies. So, we decided to show the government that our hands are not tied, that we can still stand up for women’s rights, even now. It was a really powerful sign of the real solidarity in the times of coronavirus. Some women were fined by the Police but they were offered the support by Ogolnopolski Strajk Kobiet, so the battle continues,”

that is how Marta Górczyńska described her experience. However, she does not believe that protesting online is as fruitful as going to the streets. 

“But in the times of a lockdown, there is no other choice thanto use such forms of protests as car demonstration or online protest. Apparently, it proved to be quite effective as well: not only national but also international media covered it.” 

Among advantages of protesting online, Marta Górczyńska also named the fact that some women who would never even consider going to the streets, found this form of protests easier or safer, posting their photos with slogans and hashtags on Twitter and on Instagram.

Recently, MPs in Poland decided not to pass these two bills seeking to ban sexuality education and further restricting abortion, and instead forwarded them onto subcommittees for further debate, freezing them for the future.

Following the decision by MPs in Poland, Draginja Nadazdin, the Director of Amnesty International Poland stated that the protests brought some results: “The voices of the thousands who took part in creative protests this week may have been muffled by face masks, but their message was nonetheless heard loud and clear.”

Marta Górczyńska is not that sure about it. 

“It’s difficult to say whether the decision of Polish MPs’ to prolong debates on the bill was a direct result of our protests. But anyway, it’s just a partial victory. Let’s keep in mind that the bill can still go through, it hasn’t been rejected. That’s why it’s important to keep reminding our government that we do not agree for that and we will keep demonstrating against it, in one form or another.”

Car demostration in Warsaw. Slogan: “Women’s strike”. Credit: Maciek Jazwiecki/Agencja Gazeta

Ninety-two MEPs from across the political spectrum also showed their disapproval of the drafts of the controversial bills. They signed the letter to Polish MPs urging them to reject these two legislative initiatives.

“We are all convinced that roll back protections for women’s human right and self-determination are of grave concerns as they undermine a core European Union value, that of advancing gender equality. Under human rights measures that undermine or restrict existing rights are not permitted and these drafts bills violate Poland’s obligation to ensure ever greater protection of human rights,” stated in the letter.

Digital protest in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, April 20, 2020. Bubbles from left to right: “No money for pay loans! What to do?”, “Cancel taxes and loans, etc.”, “A state of emergency or stop restricting people”. Credits: image by Screenshots via Yandex.Navigator / Facebook. Fair use.

Besides car demonstrations, there is one more unusual way to protest against a government’s decision in a ‘coronavirus-friendly’ way. Residents of Russian city Rostov-on-Don held a virtual rally against self-isolation restrictions on April 20, using the “Conversations” tool in the mobile apps Yandex.Maps and Yandex.Navigator, services of a Russian digital giant Yandex.Later this brand-new way of protesting was used in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kazan and other Russian cities. 

Slogans differed from desperate cries for a state of emergency to joking remarks. Then, suddenly, Yandex started to “disperse” online rallies, deleting people’s comments.

The liberal opposition began to accuse Yandex of being pro-Kremlinly intolerant of any rallies. However, in an official press-release Yandex explained its deleting of the protesters’ comments in another way. “We would like to emphasize that the company continues following the principle of tolerance of users’ political views. But Yandex.Navigator and Yandex.Maps cannot be a platform for expressing these views. Our services are to help millions of drivers and pedestrians to choose the best routes. And we want to keep it as such.”

credit: Yana Sashkina

Summing all these examples up…

Even though the relevance of protesting online has increased because of the coronavirus outbreak, all these examples above are the sequels of social movements, born in physical reality. Online strikes are not organizing brand-new communities, but giving an opportunity for ‘old’ communities of protesters keep being on track. 

Digital activism has a potential to drive changes, at least, its effectiveness can be defined by the fact that it helps to fight 24/7, despite all the restrictions of the offline world.

However, policy makers are still reluctant to obey demands of hashtags. Polish bills seeking to ban abortion in the case of fetal abnormalities and to criminalize sex education are still to be discussed in the parliament’s committees. Digital climate strikes are covered by media outlets, but not so extensively as their offline analogues. Same case for the “Collages contre feminicide” campaign. Maps protests are not likely to happen in Russia again, as Yandex expressed their unwillingness to tolerate people’s usage of its digital services as a platform for political activism. 

From the strikers’ perspective, they also feel like offline protests are more visible, and therefore effective. On the one hand, the online sphere is still good at extensively mobilizing the masses and providing quite a safe platform for expressing ideas. On the other hand, the interviewed activists emphasized, that digital protests are inferior to traditional methods of protests in intensifying ties within the community of activists. 

Finally, deciding to protest or not to protest online, it’s important to keep in mind that digital activism can turn into useless clicktivism if you do not have enough dedication to a protesting community and the changes it pursues.

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