Saturday, July 19, 2014

Take Back the 'Net

I often make references here to “digital utopians,” the folks of the ‘90s who kept telling us the internet would set our minds and news media free from the constraints and censorship imposed by corporate ownership. We could all be our own newspaper, TV and radio outlets. Always implicit, and sometimes embarrassingly explicit, in the online utopian screeds of that decade was the hope or assumption that nastiness like racism and sexism were ideological impositions on workers and that, once free of corporate media, we’d be free of that, too. Nice sentiment.

I still hear folks defending this position that racism and sexism will “wither away” once we own our own, online, media: they remind me that corporate control of the media really hasn’t disappeared, it has just evolved so as to acquire a significant hold over digital media, along with broadcast outlets, newspapers and the rest of the traditional media, and that all we have to do is push back online and we can bring about the digital millennium. It turns out they’re wrong. The (not so) new media is as bad a place to be as the old. Perhaps worse, in that the bad things that used to happen slowly, in print and at a distance, can now take place instantly and in our homes, on our phones.

For a few years now I’ve been babbling here about the need for unions to make more and better use of the new media. I’ve often pointed to the labour movement’s internal barriers to that. But, to my shame, I’ve not spent any time at all looking at some of the many ways in which the new media can be used as a platform for targetting groups in a way that old media never could.

I’ll touch on other targeted groups in future columns, but, in a belated salute to International Women’s Day, let’s take a peek at what women face. It ain’t pretty. In fact it’s so ugly I had trouble finding examples fit to print without censoring them to the point of uselessness. To illustrate the problem, check the CBC News post, “Sexist tweets aimed at female politicians captured on blog ( At lot more productive, and less prone to offend to the point where you just want to avert your eyes, are conversations about the problem taking place here and there between women online, a great example being the Facebook group “Feministas of Canada.” Check out, as well, Huffington Post blogger Soraya Chemaly’s recent commentary, “Online Threats Against Women Aren't Trivial and Don’t Happen in a Vacuum.”
“Sexist commentary – the jokes, the asides, the slights, the tweets – is hostile,” she writes, “but it’s just the very surface of what we’re dealing with. This isn’t about being ‘offended,’ it’s about feeling marginalized as a result of hate and disdain.” More than a few explicitly feminist online publications have been tackling the silencing of women. Jezebel’s editor Jessica Coen did in “When There’s So Much Bullshit Online, You Forget How to Feel” (
Amanda Marcote responded in Slate, in “Online Misogyny: Can’t Ignore it, Can’t Not Ignore It” (

And just in case you doubted that online misogyny transcends borders and class, read the piece by Jane Fae in The New Statesmen, called “Misogyny, intimidation, silencing – the realities of online bullying.” It’s about the hostile online reaction women politicians face in the UK when expressing an opinion about pretty much anything, including the weather.

What’s most distressing is the inescapable conclusion a few minutes reading leaves you with: whether it comes in the form of a threat of physical violence (sometimes accompanied by a reference that implies the sender knows where you live or work); or “joke” polls about which celebrities deserve to die; or supposedly moderated groups and discussion forums that ignore complaints about abusive comments, the internet is not a safe or comfortable place for women trying to organize.

And I do mean “organize” in the broadest sense. Want to attract some nasty boys? Watch what happens when a woman trys to use Facebook or Twitter to get women friends together for a pub night or a bus trip. Fake something completely innocuous, with no explicit political content. Just make it clear it’s a women-only event, and watch the abuse fly your way.

I appealed on Facebook for anecdotes about the nasty side of online organizing, and one of the women who responded did exactly that, and the most striking thing about the nasty boy’s reaction was the absolute casualness of it. As astounding as what she described was, it wasn’t directed at me and so I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

Usually I end a rant like this with a prescription for a solution. I don’t know what to say, except: Do in cyberspace what has worked out here in meatspace. Find or build safe spaces and work outwards from there. I’d end by saying how depressed my little investigation made me, but there are a bunch of sisters working through and around this shit, so really it’s more a matter for constructive anger than depression.

Trying to wean your union off Microsoft/Apple corporate software? Here’s a useful checklist on getting there from The New Internationalist, called “10 Steps to Software Freedom” (

If you’re the webhead for your small website-less local union and see the advantages of having a union domain for your activist’s e-mail addresses, go here for some simple instructions for setting it up:

Not yet signed-on to Alex White’s e-mail list? Here’s another reason to do so. See “Five Essential Elements of Startegy for Unions to Win,” at:

When LabourStart’s Twitter feeds first got up and running, we were posting one item per hour 24 hours a day to the global feed, and one per hour, 12 hours a day, to the Canadian English and French feeds. (Note to newbie readers: I’m LabourStart’s senior Canadian correspondent.) A couple of weeks in we surveyed our followers for all those accounts. The results were interesting in that the global feed’s followers were clear: cut it back to eight per day, evenly spaced. The Canadians, however, were equally clear: stay at one per hour.

Surveys like this are worth doing for all your social media accounts. After complaining and seeing no change, I’ve unliked a couple of Canadian union pages on Facebook just because their updates were flooding my newsfeed, making it hard to find anything not from them. Did they really think I wanted something from them every 20 minutes? Worse, most of what they were throwing at me didn’t originate with them but instead was something they were just passing along,  often from a source I had already “liked” or followed.

Speaking of asking people what they want, building global solidarity at the rank-and-file level is why LabourStart tries to organize a conference somewhere in the world each year. To test the waters for another conference in Canada, we ran a short survey to gauge interest. So, it looks like we’ll be in the Vancouver area in 2014. But, most interesting were the responses to a couple of throw-away questions that were added. Almost 80 per cent of respondents either didn’t know if their union was engaged in international work, or knew it wasn’t. And these were Canadian trade unionists with enough of an interest in international solidarity actions to be on our mailing list.  If anyone would know, you’d think they would, but they often didn’t.

When was the last time your union used an online survey, or even a smartphone app, to systematically survey its members about what they think of their union and what it does, and what they know and don’t know about it – and then educate and maybe organize  them in the process?  I suspect not in a long while, if ever. Online, such things can be done a lot more frequently than was possible when we needed to rely on polling firms to do the work.

Union Solidarity International (British union Unite’s international arm) has made available a nice piece of video on the uses to which Brazilian unions are putting social media. See Watch, listen and envy. Then emulate.

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