Taking the Fight Offline

As evidenced by the surge in online activism orchestrated by groups like Momentum and the Democratic Socialists of America, reaching people with an anti-capitalist message has never been easier. But David Mitchell argues digital campaigning has its limitations and that socialists must keep an ear to the ground…

In the early nineties, the first elements of the internet as we now understand it found their way into the hands of average citizens. Decades earlier, as far back as the sixties, digital pioneers had predicted computer networks would herald a new age of democracy, where unlimited connectivity would give rise to unlimited possibilities for building consensus and shaping society. Almost fifty years later, in 2010, the Arab spring and Occupy movements finally gave a glimmer of these utopian visions. But no sooner than the headlines of Tahrir square faded had the dream begun to sour.

In the past five years, we’ve seen unprecedented erosion of our privacy as security services side-step the law to tighten their grip on the internet. Invasive online snooping legislation has been passed with little resistance from the public. Fake news and big data have been accused of subverting democracy, and entrenched hatred on social media has boiled over into real-world violence. There’s palpable unease growing about the digital future we’re hurtling towards.

Where does this leave us here, today, in Scotland? How should we be using digital tools to further socialist ideals and steer society away from structural violence and inequality? The first step is to acknowledge the inherent strengths and weakness of the digital sphere. We must remember what our digital tools are for, and more importantly what we shouldn’t use them for.

The primary limitation we should acknowledge is that the digital world is not representative of the wider world. One of the earliest claims of the internet, and specifically social networks, was that we could mirror society in a digital medium. But this hasn’t proved the case: anonymity, skewed demographics, filter bubbles and the short format of platforms like Twitter have resulted in social networks that are merely caricatures of the real wold.

As such, we should always be aware that online activism won’t necessarily result in real world change. Yes, the discussions we have online can steer the wider public discourse, but online activism alone is still too easily ignored. As anti-capitalist campaigners, or as ordinary citizen who wish to further the left’s agenda, we should always be mindful of opportunities to transform online momentum into offline action.

I believe a single article in the Helensburgh Advertiser critiquing our consumption driven economy will likely have more impact than a similar blog post with 300 Facebook shares.  Such an article in a local newspaper is almost certain to bring our message to a new audience and introducing a viewpoint that will otherwise go unstated, but Facebook shares will keep you preaching to the converted. Ironically, as well as being potentially more impactful, it’s now also much easier to have a letter published in your local newspaper than it is to develop a piece of content capable of generating 300 shares.

Similarly, a short, compelling argument against private education made on a national radio phone-in is likely to influence more people in 3 minutes than you could in 3 months on Twitter. Imagine that in the run up to the independence referendum, every Yes voter who spent time debating online with No voters had instead invested that time working offline, chapping doors to speak to neighbours. How different might the result have been? It can be incredibly satisfying to trade jabs with our ideological opponents through social media, but does it ever further our respective causes?

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Our social networks and blogs are the place for us to connect with like-minded people, collaborate, seek advice, disseminate information and highlight issues we want to take action on. But that action should most often be away from our phones and keyboards; letters to editors, posters and flyers, photo opportunities for local media, phoning your MSPs office, and of course demos and marches. These are the tried and tested techniques for movement building and achieving social change. We forget them at our peril.

This is not to say digital channels aren’t important – they’re vital, but primarily as a means to build our networks and co-ordinate offline action. This is why Conter could be crucial, a platform whose central premise is to delineate the two crucial but distinct aspects of campaigning; the theoretical and the practical. 

A time may come where our online activity alone can shape the offline world, but it’s not here yet. There are still many Scots who experience the world through old media, and we need to reach them through traditional channels. Indeed, how many times have we seen a firestorm of controversy ignored by politicians until such times as it seeps out of the digital realm, into the mainstream press, becoming visible to “ordinary Scots”.

I appreciate the need for offline action will come as a revelation to nobody, yet I believe the challenge comes not from knowing it but from remembering it and regularly acting upon it. As the social media algorithms designed to hold our attention become increasingly effective we must train ourselves to focus our time and attention on offline campaign activities, while still utilising social media channels to learn, collaborate, share successes and recruit supporters to our cause.

To this end, I suggest we all stop to evaluate our social networks and the voices we’re letting into our newsfeeds. With our limited time and attention, who should we be giving our attention to? Who’s offering real guidance and inspiring you to take tangible action towards a fairer, equitable society?

While there are thousands of political blogs and websites who can offer critiques, commentary and scathing criticism of the political class, capitalism and big business, let’s give our attention, clicks and shares to the ones who are also helping us forge a path towards meaningful change in Scotland. Conter aims to do just that, so let’s give them all the support we can.