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Can blogging stop genocide?

Posted to the NetSquared blog.

First, I want to thank NetSquared for offering me and the Genocide Intervention Network the opportunity to attend this critical event. I had written out my introduction earlier this week, but due to a browser mishap lost nearly all of it and haven’t had time to re-write it until now.

GI-Net is a nonprofit based in DC that is a little more than two years old. We began as a student group at Swarthmore College with an idea: to change the way the world responds to genocide. In her groundbreaking and Pulitzer Prize–winning book, ‘A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power surveys the U.S. response to genocides in the twentieth century and discovers that, above all, the reason the United States so often failed to act, or to act too late or ineffectively, was simply because there was no political will. In essence, it was easier for presidents and members of Congress to do nothing while genocide was being perpetrated and apologize for it later, than risk political capital taking action.

As a result of our origins as a student group, we have a strong history in using online social networking and viral campaigns, and this continues even as we branch out into other constituencies. In our first year of existence, we raised a quarter-million dollars for peacekeepers in Darfur — the only NGO to raise money for protection rather than humanitarian aid — primarily through student networks, both actual and virtual. In my work for GI-Net, I am heavily influenced by Howard Rheingold, Christian Crumlish’s The Power of Many, Marty Kearns and Network-Centric Advocacy and similar movements.

How can online activism build a movement that prevents and stops genocide? Read on…

This might get a bit long, so:

First, a little background…

I am a self-taught web developer and artist (digitally and otherwise) with a strong interest in peacebuilding, community organizing and empowerment. My major at Swarthmore was not computer-related but rather peace and conflict studies, for which I wrote a thesis on third-party nonviolent intervention organizations.

While at Swarthmore I was involved with a number of campaigns, most notably Why War?. Why War? was a prominent site for news and analysis against the war (first Afghanistan, and then Iraq). Its database from 2001–2004 is the most comprehensive accounting of articles and opinions on the war, resistance to it and the movements that arose on each side. We are most well-known, however, for a campaign that had little to do with the war.

In 2003, internal emails from the electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold emerged that suggested the company had misled voting officials in numerous states about the security of its machines, had violated contracts with states by installing new software that had not been certified, and had knowingly implemented voting systems with severe security vulnerabilities. Investigative journalist Bev Harris and the UK Independent had documented some of the serious problems, but few had taken notice, and Harris had been repeatedly threatened by her ISP, fearful of repercussions from Diebold’s lawyers.

A member of Why War? decided to post an archive of the internal files on his website. After Swarthmore threatened to shut off our Internet access in the face of baseless copyright infringement claims from Diebold, we initiated a global campaign of electronic civil disobedience, in which students at universities would post mirrors of the files on their own servers, staying ahead of each specious take-down request. Simultaneously, our friends in what would become FreeCulture.org sued Diebold through the Electronic Frontier Foundation for abusive copyright threats.

The combination of civil disobedience and civil action paid off handsomely. Within two months, Diebold backed down from their legal threats and resigned themselves to the damaging information about them now in the public domain. Suspicion of Diebold and other electronic voting machine manufacturers — and, thus, consistent investigation into their practices — remains high.

Back to genocide

So how does the Genocide Intervention Network use the Internet to effect social change? There are three primary ways.

First, we raise money online directly for peacekeepers in Darfur. This is unprecedented — never before has the average person been able to directly affect human security in the midst of a genocide. We raise money through a variety of techniques such as virtual house parties (a favorite among FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world. and MySpaceMySpace is a social network that is not built around a single identity. Users can and do have multiple profiles, with no restrictions on the “names” they use. MySpace is used by many musical groups. users), dinners for Darfur and old-fashioned member volunteering. (A piano teacher in Utah giving two weeks’ proceeds; a “battle of the bands” fundraiser in California; a bat mitzvah in New Jersey; a frat party in Massachusetts.)

Our second component is education. People can’t act against genocide unless they know about it, which is why we partnered with the American Progress Action Fund in 2005 to launch the Be A Witness campaign, urging the news media to adequately cover the crisis in Darfur. Our analysis showed that in June 2005, the major networks ran 50 times as many stories about Michael Jackson and 12 times as many stories about Tom Cruise as about the genocide in Darfur. In fact, in all of 2005 CBS ran just two minutes — total — on the issue, a fact that motivated more than 30,000 viewers to take action through the viral video and website. Because of the paltry news coverage, we also issue weekly news reports from the ground in Darfur.

Finally, we give our members the tools to advocate for protection in the face of genocide. We use Democracy in Action to direct our national campaigns, and work closely with the Sudan divestment task force at the state level. In April, we brought more than 850 students to Washington, D.C. as part of the Power to Protect: D.C. to Darfur weekend. The P2P website, which uses the Drupal open-source community platform, is key to sustaining these activists through the summer, when they will act as the catalysts for local anti-genocide groups in their hometowns.

Coming up next

We are in the planning stages of a number of exciting online campaigns to further support the emerging anti-genocide movement. Our main website will be moved to Drupal to allow our members to connect with local leaders and organizations, and concretely affect the direction of the national campaigns.

A photo petition, using ForwardTrack and our Flickr account, will put a human face on the victims in Darfur. Viewers will be asked to upload images of themselves holding a sign with — not a comment or a pledge — but the name of one of the hundreds of thousands of victims in Darfur. These photos will be delivered to members of Congress to show the depth of human involvement — and human crisis — around Darfur.

More than one of our members has asked us to be their designated charity for a marathon, and so our next fundraising tool will be a website to enable them to do just that. Members will be able to distribute information about the race and GI-Net, collect pledges online, and then follow-up with donors after the race.

I would be happy to talk further with any of you about GI-Net or our ideas, but this post is already mighty long, so I’ll stop here. Thanks again for allowing me to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing everyone!