Anti-War Activism: New Media and Protest in the Information Age

John Sloboda on the potential of new technology to make anti-war activism more effective

March 5, 2009

The February 2003 demonstrations against the Iraq War were unprecedented in their scope and scale. In Britain they signalled a resurgence and realignment of UK anti-war activism that until then had been focused largely on nuclear weapons. The new movement is characterised by uneasy alliances between "old" and "new" campaigners, and uneasy and uneven adaptation to shifting societal and informational landscapes.

This book is the output from a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council within its New Security Challenges programme. Data collection included interviews with more than 60 individuals, drawn from six selected parts of the British anti-war scene.

It provides valuable insights into the ways in which British Muslims became involved in this movement. Public events such as demonstrations have provided platforms for Muslim and non-Muslim groups. However, at more grassroots levels there has not been much real integration, and the authors believe that this has been a missed opportunity to draw British Muslims into mainstream democratic debate, of which the British anti-war movement is a key part. This failure may contribute to the likelihood that "constituencies - especially youth ... that seem estranged from the mainstream will continue to be vulnerable to subversion by terrorist groups".

Indeed, this book's meticulous analyses could be seen as the anatomy of a failed movement, a movement that has had almost no impact on government behaviour or thinking, despite the public support that could have been available to it since 2003. Key factors limiting the movement have been (a) fragmentation of aims and ideologies, with groups ranging from Quakers to Trotskyites in an uneasy and fragile alliance, (b) an over-reliance on preaching to the converted, rather than reaching out to new constituencies, (c) parochialism, with an emphasis on local politics at the expense of building international alliances, (d) half-hearted engagement with civil servants, parliamentarians, and major civil-society groupings (such as churches and human rights organisations).

The most thorough analysis undertaken is of the movement's use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Although anti-war groups have, indeed, made intensive use of the web and email, the data presented here suggest that the main use of ICTs has been as a cheaper and faster version of the village noticeboard. ICTs have allowed rapid communications for the organising of traditional meetings and demonstrations, but have not deeply transformed the modes of operation of such groups. The most far-reaching potentials afforded by recent ICT developments have largely been left on one side by the groups studied in this book, which include the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Stop the War Coalition, the Religious Society of Friends and Faslane 365.

I read this book in the week after President Obama's inauguration. His election was a triumph for civil society in the US, fed by a grassroots campaign that reached out to new constituencies (particularly the young) through every new ICT means available (instant messaging, YouTube, Facebook, etc). Opposition to the Iraq War was a central campaigning issue. On other fronts, US-based activists have also led the way. They have spearheaded Avaaz.org, a highly successful global campaigning organisation with a strong anti-war philosophy and based on the new potentials of the internet.

There are many of us who want to ensure that the British people never again allow a British Prime Minister to get away with what Tony Blair got away with. This book shows what some of us did wrong. But we may have to swallow our pride and look across the Atlantic to learn how to do it right.

Anti-War Activism: New Media and Protest in the Information Age

By Kevin Gillan, Jenny Pickerill and Frank Webster

Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £50.00

ISBN 9780230574496

Published 1 October 2008

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