Handy hints from the hacktivists

Online protesters may make business nervous, but instead of worrying about their effect on the bottom line, companies could learn a thing or two from them.

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Big brands and the new wave of protesters who target them may have more in common than either would care to acknowledge.

The seeds of 'clicktivism', 'hacktivism' and 'slacktivism' - the new face of activism that uses Facebook petitions and Twitter-organised flashmobs to air grievances and vent frustrations - were sown two years ago by Estonian ad exec-turned-environmentalist Kalle Lasn in his anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters.

In July 2011, Adbusters published a post on its site under the newly created hash tag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET: 'Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?'

The hashtag, like any good advertising strapline, took off, and just two months later it wasn't only New York's Zuccotti Park that was filled with tents and placards.

The #Occupy hashtag had gone global - a viral thread that united discontent across continents, with Occupy protests in 900 cities, stretching from Auckland to Zurich, via London, of course.

In the UK, unrest over austerity measures, Coalition cuts and corporate tax avoidance have spawned similar, loosely organised but agile networks of protesters such as UK Uncut and 38 Degrees, sceptical of traditional party politics and willing to engage with issues only on their terms.

Irrespective of the content of their campaigns, these almost leaderless, sometimes shadowy organisations prove regularly that it is now perfectly possible to create massive movements online in a matter of weeks. So what can other organisations - private, public, for profit, not for profit - learn from the ways this new breed of activists exchanges ideas, mobilises volunteers and uses social and digital media to spread its message?

There will be 1,001 reasons why decentralised, participatory, consensus-based decision-making might not work in your organisation. But barricade yourself into the corner office, lock your compliance officer in the executive bathroom and occupy your mind for just a moment with the possibilities.

#1 STAND FOR SOMETHING

 

You may not agree with their opinions or methods, but you can't deny the passion and enthusiasm that the supporters of movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut possess (though their aims might be a tad nebulous). The motivation and commitment to achieve results are stronger when goals are aligned with the personal values of volunteers, employees or customers.

'People who do something for a group such as UK Uncut do so because they are passionate about the cause,' explains Dave (he won't disclose his surname), a co-founder of UK Uncut, anti-austerity activists famous for targeting the tax affairs of Goldman Sachs, Vodafone and Starbucks. 'Staff who work in the corporate world are usually disenfranchised from their organisation's mission and end up coming to work only because they want a salary,' he adds.

#2 LEARN TO LISTEN

 

The 38 Degrees network has grown to a staff team of 15, but remains driven almost entirely by its one million members. It uses social media and the 38 Degrees website to help decide on every aspect of choosing and running its campaigns which, to date, have ranged from protesting about the sale of state-owned forests to protecting bees and saving BBC Radio 6 Music from closure.

'Each staff member regularly chooses a random location in UK, picks the best curry house in that town and invites local 38 Degrees members to come and have a chat over a curry about what's important to them,' explains executive director David Babbs.

'When faced with something new, our default position is to ask our members how we should deal with it. We've even polled members on whether we should accept invitations to speak at a Lib Dem MPs' awayday or be profiled in the Sunday Times.'

#3 RESPECT THE MIGHT OF THE HASHTAG

 

Keep your idea simple, your message clear. The Occupy protests didn't originate with expensive consultants. They began with a single blog post and a single hashtag. Twitter did most of the work, and soon protesters were holding rallies in more than 80 countries.

Hashtags provide a way to define your message, own the idea and curate the conversation. Engage with other relevant news stories and conversations via social media, producing insights that are topical and contribute to the debate.

But beware - once the conversation is out there on social media, you must be prepared to lose control of it.

#4 EMBRACE THE POWER OF THE PERSONAL

 

A self-portrait of 21-year-old Dana Bakdounis, without the veil she had grown up wearing and posted on a Facebook group supporting women's rights in Syria, gained attention worldwide. She was just one of many individuals now using social networks to make their voices heard and share their stories.

'Digital activists across different countries attract the attention of tens of thousands of users because they cast themselves as common people, with no hidden agenda,' explains Paolo Gerbaudo, lecturer in digital culture and society at King's College London.

'They use the language of a common global digital culture as a repository to articulate shared grievances, shared hopes, and shared anger.'

It's a nightmare for companies to police, but allowing employees to step out from behind the brand and demonstrate transparency and humanity can reap big dividends. Showing the world that there are real people running the organisation can be very powerful.

'We have no central command or way to prevent members from making ridiculous statements,' admits UK Uncut's Dave. 'But we always make it clear that individuals speak for themselves, not on behalf of the network. It's a subtle difference.'

#5 DECENTRALISE DECISION-MAKING

 

Some of the Occupy movement's intellectuals drew inspiration from the people of Betafo in Madagascar, a community that operates 'consensus decision-making', where residents make choices in a decentralised way, using democracy but without a government. 'We do everything we can to allow all opinions to be heard,' says UK Uncut's Dave. 'Meetings are facilitated not chaired and decisions are reached through consensus.'

'Digital activists put a great emphasis on participation as a fundamental social value, participation as the right of all people to have their voice heard, and to have control over their own environment, and over collective decisions,' says Gerbaudo. 'Unless organisations show themselves responsive to citizens at large, they will be perceived as enemies.'

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