Online Organising in New Zealand

3 Jun

Anyone who occasionally glances at a computer these days will no doubt have come into contact with the phenomenon called “online organising”.  The term is a relatively crude one which encapsulates everything from a facebook petition campaign started by a 13 year old to see their favourite band play at Big Day Out, to an efficiently organised multi-national advocacy campaign targeting the United Nations by international groups such as ‘Avaaz’.  Like it or not ‘online organising’ is fast becoming a vital piece of democratic infrastructure for the 21st century.  A new wave of organisations has emerged worldwide over the last decade in an attempt to harness and co-ordinate this power for real change offered by new technology.  Currently this movement is in its infancy in New Zealand and we are one of the few developed nations without a mainstream citizen-led organisation to counter the power of governments, corporations and lobby groups.  However, the community behind such movements are their real source of power and the more such organisations do to engage communities, the more effective they are in achieving their goals.

The fact that there is a proliferation of such online organizations worldwide indicates a strong desire among citizens to increase their engagement with traditional democratic structures and to find power outside of these structures.  We find ourselves in New Zealand in 2012 in a moment of political turmoil.  Across the world, citizens have challenged entrenched power, inequality and the erosion of their standards of living, inspiring a hunger for more meaningful opportunities for citizen engagement and for open, dynamic, and truly progressive politics.   Internationally, effective online organising by MoveOn.org was instrumental in helping Barak Obama to the US presidency in 2008. It also assisted with the organisation of the Arab Spring and the worldwide Occupy movements in 2011.  The widespread sympathy of a wide range of people to the many online movements around the world indicates that there is at present a serious disconnection between the will of the masses and the actions of governments and corporations.   Such a disconnection suggests an endemic lack of citizen involvement in decision making which affects us – a key tenet of the concept of democracy as originally conceived.

As responsible citizens of a democratic nation, Kiwis must use all the tools available to us to ensure that our collective voice is heard and this connection between our desires and the actions of our leaders is re-established. The traditional tools with which progressive individuals and movements have attempted to impact society in the past have been political parties, trade unions and Non Government Organisations (NGOs).  However, political parties’ are losing members and relevance at alarming rates – for example in Australia, the online organisation Getup.org now claims over  500,000 members which makes it a larger political force than either of the major political parties, while Avaaz, with over 10 million members is the largest NGO in the world (bigger than Amnesty International).  Trade Unions in New Zealand have been in crisis for years as the effects of globalisation and competitiveness have weakened labour laws and decreased their power.  Most traditional NGO’s are issue specific and generally use a large chunk of their budget (often sourced from Government or corporations) on maintaining the organisation and justifying its relevance.  Some notable exceptions are emerging with Greenpeace NZ and 350.org.nz effectively using online organising tools to mobilise the masses and source funding for actions in their areas of interest.

In contrast to most traditional organisations tools, the key aspects of the new generation of online organisations are that they are multi-issue based, nimble, flexible, people powered and, most importantly, independent. These organisations allow activists and ordinary people to come together and share knowledge and to assist to directly decide and fund the operations of the organisation.  The best online organisations and movements are essentially acting as a rallying point for citizens who aspire to a society which values social justice, economic fairness and environmental sustainability. They are independent and democratic, and co-ordinate both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ action to hold governments and business to account. The fact that such organisations are decentralised and independent of Government and political funding means that they are highly independent and responsive to their members’ collective voices rather than those of external funders or governments.

These organisations effectively enable tens or hundreds of thousands of citizens to pool their efforts to create progressive change in politics, business and society by providing honest information and strategic leadership.  The underlying assumption is that the majority of citizens wish to be more engaged in democracy, but face three major constraints: With busy work and family lives, they don’t have much time to give;, with so many problems, they don’t know where to begin;, with so many different interest groups and points of view, they don’t know who to trust.  The benefits of online organizing is that it can provide citizens with a way to effect change that will require only a small time commitment, focus energy by targeting the worst problems with effective ways to impact them at moments of great opportunity and can earn the trust of its members by not being manipulative or only presenting one side of the story.

 International Online Organising Success

Arguably, the most successful organisations so far have been those following the ‘New Organizing model’ which started in 1998 with MoveOn in the USA and soon spread to Australia with GetUp! Launching in 2005.  In 2006 the first truly Global online organisation ‘Avaaz’ launched  internationally and now has over 10 million members.  In 2009 38 Degrees launched in the UK    and there are currently well advanced plans underway for launching such organisations in NZ, India, Canada, France and Ireland.  In addition, it has been well publicized that the Arab Spring uprisings were organised effectively thanks to the emergence of online organising technology in the Middle East.

 The future of online Organising in NZ

There are a number of internationally based websites which have begun to make inroads into action in New Zealand.

Examples include Change.org through which a number of New Zealand focused petitions have been launched.  A notable case was the HELP sexual abuse line petition and related actions which resulted in a victory for the campaign.  Change.org has a very bottom up structure and essentially relies on its members to create petitions and has little or no strategic direction from the top nor assistance with ensuring results.  This model definitely has its place but is no replacement for a focused and dedicated national organisation with real organisers and activists on the ground.  The key difference is the ability of organisations such as GetUp and MoveOn to really engage with communities on a personal level and to form ‘strong ties’.  Due to new technology and the nimble model they follow, such campaigning organisations are able to keep operating costs relatively low so that over 80% of funds raised are still spent on the crucial aspects of campaigning rather than on paying for salaries and fancy office space.

People all over the world including here in New Zealand are realising that the democratic systems we have inherited are not necessarily built to solve our problems and that change will have to come from either a dramatic reform of this system or from outside the system altogether.  The reason these fundamental flaws in our democratic systems are unlikely to be corrected in the short term is that our elected officials are reluctant to legislate to essentially limit their control and relevance in the modern political sphere.  By decentralising power over everyday decision making, we as citizens would gain more democracy but the traditional political complex would lose all relevance and is naturally doing everything in its power to prevent such decentralisation.  However, withstanding a complete global technological meltdown or serious limitation of online freedoms, online organizing appears to be set to play a huge part in the re-growth of citizen involvement in politics and society.  The key matter to be kept in mind as we move forward is that the technology enabling such movements is simply a tool or a means to an end and that the real power behind such movements is the people themselves.

JC

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