POLITICS ON THE NET - NGO PRACTICES AND EXPERIENCES

Postgraduate

ABSTRACT

This study investigates how different kinds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), operating in different national political contexts, perceive and use the Internet as a political space. The political space concept, as defined here, encompasses two dimensions of Internet use: one external, where organisations use the Internet for online activism and campaigning, and one internal, signifying organisational use of the Internet to promote engagement and interactivity with members and/or supporters. Another question raised is whether Internet use for political purposes by NGOs varies between different national political contexts. Moreover, do the organisations believe that the Internet has affected their political influence to any extent? The empirical data consist of the results of two surveys, one directed primarily to American NGOs, the other explicitly comparative, analysing NGOs in Sweden and the USA. Furthermore, content analyses of NGO websites have been conducted and additive indexes constructed. The findings of the study suggest that, overall, the Internet is most important to the studied organisations as a space for external political initiatives. There were, however, important differences in this regard, which could be related to the organisations’ national political contexts. For example, the American NGOs have oriented their websites primarily towards relatively superficial forms of member involvement, while the Swedish NGOs provided more interactive grassroots features on their websites. Regarding political influence, the Internet arguably has the potential to make the most dramatic difference by reinforcing the organisations’ offline political activities. The present results indicate that, despite the possible converging effect of the Internet on NGO political activism, national political culture exerts an inescapable influence on how the Internet is used as a political space by the studied organisations.

Introduction

February 1998 saw the start of an international storm of protest among social movements, civil society groups and individual citizens against the long-prepared plans for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment and Trade (MAI). The objective of the MAI, which was prepared for three years by trade ministers from the 29 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), was to facilitate international trade. Many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), however, criticised the MAI for promoting corporate power at the expense of national sovereignty, environmental concern and labour rights. The MAI protests spread quickly via the Internet, which provided information about, and the full text of, the agreement. Individuals and organisations around the world used the Internet to disseminate action alerts and petitions, and to organise offline protest activities, such as street demonstrations (Ayres 1999, Deibert 2000: 261–264). In total, 600 NGOs from approximately 70 nations were estimated to have participated in a series of demonstrations and protest meetings; France responded by interposing its veto, and the agreement was abandoned in December 1998 (Smith and Smythe 2001).

The MAI protests represent one of the first and best-known examples of Internet use for political purposes, conducted and coordinated at a large scale by civil society groups and organisations. Other examples have followed. The mass protests during the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 are another famous manifestation of the power of the Internet, together with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, large demonstrations have been held in Prague (2000), organised by the alter-globalisation movement, and during the EU summit in Gothenburg and the G8 meeting in Genoa (2001), all representing civil society responses to the inter-governmental meetings held in these cities at the same times (della Porta and Diani 2006; Bennett 2004, 2005; Christensen 2006). The media also extensively covered the worldwide demonstrations against the planned US intervention in Iraq in 2003 (Olesen 2005). In addition, the World Social Forum, gathering thousands of civil society groups and activists, has been organised annually, as a grassroots demonstration


against the World Economic Forum meetings. Apart from such spectacular and large-scale mobilisations of political protest, international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, initiate online political action on an ongoing basis, via their websites and by communicating with members and/or supporters in online networks. Similar activities are also found among smaller, lesser-known NGOs. Taken together, these and many other examples suggest that the Internet can play an important role, serving as a political tool and space for civil society groups and possibly also strengthening their political influence.