A cross-border fraternity that strives to be seen, heard and heeded
Sep 2nd 2010 | OTTAWA | from the print edition
NEARLY four years ago, a web-based political movement set itself the modest task of “closing the gap between the world we have and world most people everywhere want”. Calling their group Avaaz, which means “voice” in several languages, the founders aimed to reproduce globally some of the success which their progenitors—like America’s Moveon.org, and Australia’s Getup!—had enjoyed in national political arenas.
By its own lights, the movement, using 14 languages and engaged in a mind-boggling list of causes, has had some spectacular successes. Within the next few months, membership will top 6m. The number of individual actions taken (from bombarding a politician with a well-aimed message, or funding a poster campaign, to helping provide satellite phones to Burmese monks) is estimated at over 23m. Among the recent developments Avaaz claims to have influenced are a new anti-corruption law in Brazil; a move by Britain to create a marine-conservation zone in the Indian Ocean; and the spiking of a proposal to allow more hunting of whales.
But is there any objective measure by which the reach of a global e-protest movement can be assessed? Sceptics use words like “clicktavism” to describe political action that demands nothing more of a protester than pressing a button, which may just imply curiosity; and it is rarely possible to prove beyond doubt that e-campaigning is a decisive factor in a political outcome.
On the other hand, argues Ricken Patel, a co-founder of Avaaz, digital activism rarely ends with the click of a mouse. Avaaz’s campaign against the death sentence for adultery imposed on an Iranian woman asks members to phone Iranian embassies (and provides numbers); members are also being urged to put pressure on the leaders of Brazil and Turkey to intercede with Iran. Avaaz is collecting funds for a campaign in the Brazilian and Turkish press, too.
Avaaz’s other demands range from the simple—close Guantánamo, because it plays into the hands of Osama bin Laden—to the very broad: fight climate change, avoid a clash of civilisations. Despite the risk of blurred signals, the variety of causes is also a strength, says Dave Karpf, an American analyst of the net; it allows the group to act as a hub, attracting members to one campaign and telling them about others. As Evgeny Morozov, a writer on the internet (including for The Economist) points out, Avaaz has lost whatever monopoly it had over the creation of instant, cross-border lobbies; you can do that on Facebook. But the way Avaaz bunches unlikely causes together may be an asset in a world where campaigns, like race and class, can still segregate people, not reconcile them.