Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Online Activism: Media Stereotypes And The Rise Of Smart Mobs

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The mass-media have a long history of creating and reinforcing stereotypes, whether they be founded in gender, race, class or culture. And now, in the so-called 'war on terror' years, this caricaturing of cultures is helping to create a monumental clash of civilizations.


In politics, as on TV, fear sells. And the easiest way to create fear in a population is to create a nefarious, shadowy 'Other', an Other so far removed from our beliefs, ethics and way of life as to seem all but inhuman.

The Nazis, pioneers of mass-media propaganda, managed to convince a nation that it was being bled dry by the Jews, communists, gypsies, and anyone else that they could scapegoat. With relentless repetition and indoctrination they created the sense that these people were something less than human.

And today the same thing is happening on our TV screens.

But while we might be being fed stereotypes and distorted cultural differences on the daily news, the Internet has proved to offer a far more diverse range of information sources, giving people the chance to speak out regardless of whether they have corporate backing.

As blogging, citizen journalism and online activism gain in strength and stature, we now have a very real opportunity to access information that would otherwise slip through the cracks, and make decisions for ourselves.

One such example is, an online community dedicated to helping global citizens to take action on the biggest issues facing the world today.

Rise of the Smart Mobs


''A smart mob is a form of self-structuring social organization through technology-mediated, intelligent "emergent behavior". The concept was introduced by Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. According to Rheingold, smart mobs are an indication of the evolving communication technologies that will empower the people.''

Wikipedia, Smart Mob

As mobile and web technologies become cheaper and all but ubiquitous, so the possibilities for individuals to organize themselves into crowds, publish news and images, and gather around a common cause become increasingly possible.

Howard Rheingold's notion of the Smart Mob, empowered by technology and collective intelligence, has certainly manifested itself time and time again in recent years. The web is much less a one-way, top-down medium than television, radio or print-based mass media. As such, Internet activism in its many forms has started to flourish.

The news has been turned upside down by citizen journalism, and the mobile army of camera-phone owning street reporters. Education has spilled over from the academy and into virtual worlds and other informal spaces. Film and media-making has started to tap into the creative potential of the people formerly known as the audience.

And then there's politics. Politics is no longer something enacted by other people on our behalf from a safe distance, or at least, it no longer has to be. In Italy Beppe Grillo has leveraged his blog presence to give everyday people a voice about what matters to them; from Brussels campaigners have been using the web to launch a Citizens' Initiative; Free Software campaigners have taken their fight against DRM to the streets; the list goes on. manages to combine raising awareness about debates and issues ignored in the mainstream media, and gathering people together to make a real difference in solving problems on a global scale.

Avaaz.Org - Overview

clash.jpg is published in some thirteen languages, and aims to have an impact not just on local level, but also a global one. The website features a description of its goals:

'' (Our name means "Voice" or "Song" in several languages including Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Nepalese, Dari, Turkish, and Bosnian) is a community of global citizens who take action on the major issues facing the world today. Our aim is to ensure that the views and values of the world's people -- and not just political elites and unaccountable corporations -- shape global decisions. members are taking action for a more just and peaceful world and a vision of globalization with a human face.'', Our Mission

The connection to the growing participatory culture made possible by the web is instantly apparent, and the philosophy of the community is one of global individuals empowered by connecting online.

Among the campaigns currently being run by Avaaz are:

And the list doesn't stop there.

Avaaz is focusing on global issues, and on the ability for web surfers to make a real difference simply by making their voices heard in sufficient numbers. The message is simple: with minimal effort on the part of individuals, crowds can make impressive changes in the political landscape.

Stop the Clash of Civilizations - Video Mashup

One current campaign featured on the Avaaz website focuses on attempting to unbalance the cultural and ethnic stereotypes reinforced daily from both sides of the Western and Islamic mass media.

The following powerful mashup video argues the case far better than words alone might. Take a look for yourself:

As tensions mount in even the most multi-cultural nations between the common perception of the Western and Islamic ways of life, the mass-media does little to bring about peaceful resolution, and an incredible deal to further the divide and play up a 'clash of civilizations'.

But whose interests does this apparent clash really serve?

According to the statistics featured in the video it isn't the people on the receiving end of the bullets, bombs and missiles, or even those watching from the wings on their TV sets. Hatred, emphasis of differences, and dehumanization of the ethnic and cultural Other are nothing new. We have seen this all before.

Avaaz gives those people one way that they can make their opinions known, and voices heard. As such it forms part of a growing trend that manages to put key decisions into the hands of the people that most feel their effects.


Running alongside the media-orchestrated war on terror there is a rich seam of counter-information and online activism waging a war on hatred. The web, by giving as close to freedom of expression as we have yet seen, is an environment that fosters different perspectives. As such the counter-media, independent publishers and web-empowered smart mobs are challenging the status quo peddled by the mass media.

Propaganda is here to stay, and has proven itself with successive generations to be a dangerous tool. Sowing the seeds of discord and a clash of civilizations not only serves the interest of oil-hungry magnates and repressive regimes, but also fuels the mass media with great copy. Let's face it, stereotypes, terror and death sell newspapers and ad space a lot faster than understanding, multiculturalism and relativism.

But people aren't stupid, and more and more they are standing up to the monoculture and hegemony pushed down at them from above. Using web and mobile technology to expose injustice, rally support and inspire direct action, the smart mobs are global citizens no longer happy to be led by the nose.

The campaigns being successfully fought for at are just the tip of the iceberg. The message is clear - if we want a direct say in how the world is run, when our politicians fail to serve the interests of those who voted for them, it may well be time to take matters into our own hands.

Internet communication is making that possible in new and exciting ways we are only just starting to appreciate and comprehend.

Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about how the Internet is stepping up to mass media as a means of information sharing and activism, you might want to check out the following links:

Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Media Stereotypes Tackled Head On: Online Activism And The War On Hatred

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Readers' Comments    
2007-07-07 19:15:14


about avaaz..their video on clash of civilization was superb..i did sign their petition to start an honest middle east peace process.

talking about peace in middle east,family of a a peace activist who was killed by a bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 are now suing Caterpillar for selling the bulldozer to Israel, here is the link:

middle east news desk,the newsroom

2007-06-18 01:11:43


If you're interested in a broader and deeper overview of the way the net is used by activists to amplify and extend their voices, check out John Emerson's An Introduction to Activism on the Internet.

2007-06-11 20:24:57

Barry Steiner

Comparing the western world of today to what was happening in 1930s Germany does not hold water. The Germans then WERE being "bled dry." They were being strangled politically and economically - not by any race or ethnic group, but by the victors of World War One. Living conditions were so intolerable for them, they embraced any old madman who promised to get even with the allied powers who had bested them in the trenches and had been punishing them for almost 20 years.

I'm not saying I disagree with the thrust of your essay, but I cannot let a false analogy go without a reply. And comparing Germany in the 1930s to the fat, pampered and lazy westerners we are today doesn't help to bolster the validity of your argument.

2007-06-10 13:44:45

Kare Anderson

In support of your advocacy for "bottom up" from everywhere, "power of Us" rather than a "top down" organizations and media-annointed "leadership, read Paul Hawken's new book "Blessed Unrest" and his companion web site Wiser Earth

- also a place for NGOs and other orgs. and individuals can learn from each other, work together, etc. towards making this a better world.

Like Howard, he's based here in Marin. Helped start Clusty.
Wrote Ecology of Commerce and other books.

A trailblazer & systems thinker like you.

posted by Michael Pick on Saturday, June 9 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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