Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

Virtual and Physical Activism Report to the UNFCCC

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

I’m pleased to announce the final report of the McGill School of Environment’s UNFCCC research team, entitled Influencing Climate Change Policy: Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations Using Virtual and Physical Activism.

The executive summary is provided below. The full report, including details on the methodology, can be downloaded.


This research reports the way Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs) use the tools of virtual and physical activism to influence climate change policies. ENGOs are well-positioned to influence these policies by developing expertise on global warming issues, representing the interests of impacted humans (and non-humans), and providing knowledge and information to decision-makers and the public.

ENGOs accomplish this through a variety of physical and virtual tools. Physical tools (or activities) include paper reports, face-to-face meetings, marches, and conference attendance. Virtual tools range from creating/updating websites to emailing to live webcasting. Virtual activism implies communication via the use of Internet tools; whereas physical activism suggests the tools of in-person communication that have little reliance on virtual means. Activism in this study comprises the advisory and advocacy tools used by ENGOs to transmit information.

With few exceptions, the unique value and contributions of virtual activism has not been considered in research on ENGO influence in policy negotiations; instead, research focuses on strategies and goals, and largely with traditional physical activities. However, nearly all ENGOs employ some form of virtual activism. Many argue that virtual activism embodies characteristics that match the urgency and global scale of climate change. It holds tremendous potential for ENGOs to reach large numbers of people inexpensively and immediately, but at a possible cost of decreased personal relationships and actual impact.

In research, the role of virtual tools and physical tools tends to be explored separately. In practice, an organization does not use one to the exclusion of the other. This research is unique in three ways. First, it explores the way ENGOs use virtual tools to substitute for or complement physical tools. Second, it investigates specific characteristics of tools relative to their application. Lastly, it outlines the relative advantages of implementing these tools to influence climate policy.

Research was conducted in the months preceding and during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change/ 11th Conference of the Parties/ 1st Meeting of the Parties (UNFCCC/ COP-11/ COP/MOP-1), held in Montréal, Quebec, Canada November 28 to December 9, 2005. Researchers conducted interviews with ENGOs communication directors before the meeting and ENGO representatives during the meeting.

Our client was Équiterre, an ENGO based in Montréal. Équiterre coordinated ENGO activities during the 2005 UNFCCC meeting in Montréal. Équiterre was interested in assessing which activism tools are most effective in achieving their ENGO goals and furthering their cause. We were assisted by members of Équiterre in this study. We were further assisted by Barbara Black, NGO liaison officer of the UNFCCC.

We found that physical activism has an overriding importance in establishing personal relationships and networks, which were found to be among the most effective ways to influence decision-makers and gain public and media attention. Virtual tools evince greater potential to facilitate information transmission globally and are commonly employed to enhance physical activism. Specifically,

  • Physical tools are considered to have more impact for the ENGO resources expended and are superior to virtual tools in influencing policy makers, although they are more expensive than most virtual tools
  • The personal contact characteristic of physical activism is essential to influencing climate change; physical tools are perceived to be interactive, engaging, and direct, and they build personal relationships, trust, and commitment
  • Virtual tools allow for greater information availability and accessibility, possess larger scope and scale, and are considered relatively inexpensive in time and cost, although they are less capable of establishing personal contact than most physical activities
  • Virtual tools are possible substitutes for physical tools if personal relations are first built sufficiently with physical tools. Virtual tools may gradually replace physical contact. Virtual tools can substitute for intra-organizational management and inter- ENGO coordination
  • (e.g., webcasts and webconferences including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), emails to maintain contact with distant policy makers)

  • Virtual tools are possible complements for physical tools if used in tandem, as in supporting online resources or providing support in coordinating physical tools
  • (e.g., webcasts of live events, emails as reminders of prior conversations, wikis for organizing and coordinating physical activities, websites to archive background briefing papers to prepare for conferences)

Based on this research, we recommend that our client choose activism tools on a strategy-specific basis. Strategies involving decision makers require personal interaction afforded by physical tools, although they can be complemented by virtual tools. Indirect strategies, such as generating media attention and public awareness, may allow greater integration of virtual and physical tools.

virtual 3D activists

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Sure there are activists using virtual tools to promote their social agendas (e.g., the use of Flash animation to address climate change). Also environmentalists and environmental scientists have constructed virtual worlds to promote ecological awareness about endangered habitats. These are instances of engaging the virtual world on behalf of the physical world.

There also is the the intrusion of the physical world into the virtual world. But are there any virtual activists advocating on behalf of their own virtual environments? For this I turned to Second Life, that giant of 3D virtual worlds.

An article on activism in Second Life Magazine examined the emergence of virtual 3D activism.

Hank Ramos, balloonist and resident since November of 2003 holds a one-man protest to decry the state of the Linden Balloon that no longer provides tours for new residents. A new campaign headquarters opens for U.S. Presidential Candidate John Kerry, and soon lawn-signs exhorting Kerry 2004 are spotted throughout Second Life. The first of a series of in-world town hall meetings convenes, held by Second Life luminary Khamon Fate, to discuss the future expansion of Linden Continent.

A more recent instance of online activism in a virtual world is Stand-up against poverty, which is a Second Life concert of the band Sugarcult and is co-sponsored by the United Nations (!).

The closest I could find to protection of the virtual environment was a report that version 4 of SimCity would build asphalt roads by default. Reportedly this has outraged (physical world) environmentalists, although I don’t believe the Sims themselves could agitate against the automatic road construction. So a warning to you inhabitants of Second Life and World of Warcraft, your habitats may be degrading and your cities may be choking with air pollution. Save your planets before your precious nature is lost and your endangered species become extinct! 😉

But seriously…Simon at better humans worries that satisfying users’ urges with powerful technology offered by virtual worlds could dramatically reduce people’s incentive to change the real world. So I suppose that virtual 3D activism could inhibit an individual’s desire to transfer the skills gained from online advocacy to meat-environments. However, Zamboni in Second Life Magazine disagrees:

when asked if she thinks Second Life activism will have any affect on real world behavior, replied “it will allow for some Real Life discussion in Second Life — something that I haven’t found before. I would hope that this does serve to educate, and if it is indeed possible to change minds in Second Life, I will try!”

Your opinion?

the accidental Canadian

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Nice article about Elizabeth May, founder of the Sierra Club of Canada and an “accidental Canadian”.

online advertising in an online world

Friday, October 20th, 2006

See advertising in and buy virtual or real products on an online MMORPG (massively multiplayer role-playing game). That is, see the Adidas ads in Second Life and buy the Adidas shoes for your avatar. Oh, and buy a pair in the real world too. The physical world of advertising meets online games.

The sudden rush of real companies into so-called virtual worlds mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research network in the 1990’s to become a commercial proposition — but not without complaints from some quarters that the medium’s purity would be lost.

The medium’s purity?? Advertising is an instance of the real world?? This article drips with unacknowledged irony.

I’m waiting for Sony ads in World of Warcraft.

Also, this caught my eye, the fear of competition from large, well-financed corporations:

In her second life, Ms. Fitzpatrick’s digital alter-ego is a figure well-known to other participants called Prokofy Neva, who runs a business renting “real estate” to other players. “The next phase,” she said, “will be they try to compete with other domestic products — the people who made sneakers in the [SeondLife] world are now in danger of being crushed by Adidas.”

Perhaps she’s in danger of competition from ReMax or Century 21. 😉

Sometimes there’s even activism in the digital realm.

Some corporate events have been met with protests by placard-waving avatars. And there is even a group called the Second Life Liberation Army that has staged faux “attacks” on Reebok and American Apparel stores. (The S.L.L.A. says it is fighting for voting rights for avatars…)

Perhaps this will remind people to vote in the physical world as well? There is always hope that, in addition to commercial activity, some of the virtual world can seep into the real world.

youtube astroturf

Saturday, August 5th, 2006

Youtube and other sites have allowed activists to reach the world with amateur videos promoting their causes. Guess it wasn’t long before the videos were astroturfed.

One of the current top-rated videos on youtube is An Inconvenient Spoof, a play on Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth. In it, a caricatured Al Gore is boring little (Linux!) penguins with his slide show, which attributes all sorts of silly things to climate change (e.g., David Spade dating Heather Locklear). It has a Flash animation home-made quality, like many of the videos on the site. Done by an amateur, Toutsmith, who’s disgruntled by the idea of global warming, right? In a great bit of investigative reporting, Wall Street Journal reporters asked a simple question: Just where did that video come from?

In an email exchange with The Wall Street Journal, Toutsmith didn’t answer when asked who he was or why he made the video, which has just over 59,000 views on YouTube. However, computer routing information contained in an email sent from Toutsmith’s Yahoo account indicate it didn’t come from an amateur working out of his basement.

Instead, the email originated from a computer registered to DCI Group, a Washington, D.C., public relations and lobbying firm whose clients include oil company Exxon Mobil Corp.

A DCI Group spokesman declines to say whether or not DCI made the anti-Gore penguin video, or to explain why Toutsmith appeared to be sending email from DCI’s computers.

Chalk it up to the continuing battle among activists on the Internet. Then add the market.

Politicians and marketers already make wide use of email lists and blogs, and it has long been possible to distribute information over the Internet while disguising its origins. But Web video operates on a different level, stimulating viewers’ emotions powerfully and directly. And because amusing animations with a homespun feel can be created just as easily by highly paid professionals to promote agendas as by talented amateurs, caveat emptor is more relevant than ever.

Update: Almost as quickly as the spoof appeared, so did the anti-anti global warming videos.

environmentalists need sunlight

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Ran across a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight Foundation. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing Internet tools for educating the American public about the democratic process and making the federal political process more transparent. Their best known project is Congresspedia, a wiki encyclopedia in which individuals (presumably from the US) can edit and view information about the US Congress, its politicians, legislation, etc.

Sunlight’s latest tool is the pop-up politician. It’s a AJAX widget that’s similar to Google Maps’ pop ups in which a profile of a Congress person appears when you move your mouse over a related bit of information. You can download the widget to be used for your own website or blog.

pop-up politician

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a foundation like this for the environment, in which cutting edged Internet tools were developed (and evaluated!) for the environmental community? I can already see the possibilities: the pop-up David Suzuki or Gary Snyder. it would be even better to have a Flash-like animated pop-up. Then you could have, for example, Inuit elders pop up to discuss the impacts of global warming. The possibilities are endless.

Canadian math gurus falsify methods used to derive “Hockey Stick”; a revival emerges.

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

A prime example of the public bootlegging of science:

“…discussion of [the ‘Hockey Stick’ global warming curve] has been so polluted by political and activist frenzy that it is hard to dig into it to reach the science. My earlier column was largely a plea to let science proceed unmolested. Unfortunately, the very importance of the issue has made careful science difficult to pursue.” – R Muller, Technology Review – full article here.

The article is a summary of the high-calibre mathematic mystery – does the so-called “Hockey Stick” really portray history’s temperature spiking? No, not really. The standardization technique was blurred into the analysis itself, but the result’s “principal component will have a hockey stick shape even if most of the data do not.”

I would argue that no matter what degree of error was found in the original opus, the “Hockey Stick” concept has made an indellible impression. Public opinion on the matter will not likely let go – just the contrary, it seems that more and more agreement is emerging for rapid global warming.

However, there is a healthy backing from scientists who know more than mere journalistic perspectives: the blog “Real Climate” opened up an extensive back-and-forth that supports the initial findings and message.

conservationists, climate change and Google Earth

Monday, July 10th, 2006

Thanks to Howie for pointing this out. The Sierra Club of Canada, British Columbia Chapter has released a Google Earth application that shows what a 6m rise in water would do to the Greater Vancouver Area. The map shows that much of the lower mainland of Vancouver would be under water after climate change I like the combination of virtual and physical tools to demonstrate the problem:

Executive Director Kathryn Molloy will unveil the map outside the office of Liberal MLA Olga Ilich (Richmond Centre) at 8120 Granville Ave, Richmond, at 11:30 a.m.[, May 4, 2006]. The MLA’s office building is in an area that will be completely flooded according to calculations based on the Science article. Molloy will use a kayak paddle held against the building to illustrate how far the water will rise if global warming continues unchecked. [emphasis added]

sierra club google

whaling music

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

I hate to make light of the dreadful ruling at the International Whaling Communication meeting but the stop whaling people have created an innovative connection between activism and the Internet: the whale remix project.

You can work online or offline to incorporate actual recordings of humpback whales into your own music. Rhythms can be added by clicking on a major ocean area. You can also add specific ocean sounds, such as bubbles and dolphins. Submit your song and you could win a video IPod.

environmentalists take to youtube

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

First it was Flash animation and now this. From Greenpeace, which was also one of the first nonprofits on Google video.

(I’ll try to figure out how to embed youtube without it destroying the whole style sheet. OK, got most of it. Works when you click the play button below the image. If you click on the image then you’re transferred to youtube.)

Here’s another one that is a short alternative news piece on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Montreal last year.

future of virtual environmental activism?

Monday, May 29th, 2006

I note with interest today’s NYTimes article on MTV’s entry into shows produced for cell phone screens. I don’t know how they’ll do with music videos, as the article points out, there’s significant pixel smear in image movement, which worsens with reduced streaming rates. But this might actually work with Flash activism, that has  slightly cruder animation, and short shows that contain lots of relatively static images. Think the Meatrix on your cell.

culture jamming and climate change

Sunday, April 2nd, 2006

Chevrolet and Donald Trump’s The Apprentice teamed up to produce a website so that anyone can create their own ad for Chevy’s new SUV, the Tahoe. According to Autoblog, readers are able to choose from varied backgrounds, video shots, and input text to create their very own ads. I guess because they’re offering prizes Chevy thought all the ads would be “pro” SUV. They were very wrong.

Check out the ads before they’re taken down (my favourites are #1 and #6). Feel free to make one of your own.

A Saturday afternoon in Boston

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

While out of town for the weekend in Boston I witnessed the integration of physical and virtual activism. There was a large banner from a small aircraft grabbing the interest of citizen below on a Saturday afternoon. Following the short political message a website address was posted. The activism was effective because the short message achieved attention and lead the interested to greater information on the website.

one for nature…

Thursday, February 9th, 2006

A promising note amongst the bad news out there – British Columbia announced tuesday that the government has agreed to protect 2.1 million hectares of costal temperate rainforest – an area called the Great Bear Rainforest (virtual activism anyone?). While only part (1/3) of the area is protected from logging, stipulations have been made that the rest of it must be logged using more sustainable practices (although the area is still open for mining). NGOs have been pressuring the government for years regarding protection of the BC rainforest through various forms of activism, both through their scientific advising and public demonstrations. NGOs note that their scientific reccomendations were not completely adhered to, and that further steps will need to be taken.


Monday, February 6th, 2006

Check out WWF’s call to action site here. It seems they have taken the difficulties of virtual activism’s commitment building straight on. They not only provide information but also seem to create online campaigns, and inform people about them. The “passport” is even in various languages. It is not addressing the digital divide but it sure is addressing some of the major concerns about virtual activism.

hactivism on the Ceeb!

Monday, February 6th, 2006

“Toronto ‘hactivists’ benefit from grant for internet censorship work” – university students fighting censorship on the web got a $3 million grant from a chicago company to spy on people spying on other people…

blogging about a blog

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006

Here is a blog about climate change, it is “Brief commentary and analysis of climate change issues by Dr. Glen Barry.” This entry is about climate change activism occurring both physically and virtually during the COP. Pretty interesting comment… the march as only a small step.

The University’s Digital Divide

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

I have a professor this semester that will not place any course materials online due to the “Digital Divide.” The argument is unequal access to the Internet creates an unfair advantage among students. This professor’s actions could be considered activism against virtual activities.

Substitution of PA for VA

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Consider this when thinking about complement and substitute, “our data challenges pessimistic claims of a progressive substitution of offline activism for online protest: activists perform their actions both offline and online, using cyberspace as a new resources to increase their chances of success. There is no sign that offline and online environments as alternative to each other ” (page 186, Jnl Publ. Pol. ) from Porta and Mosco (2005) “Global-net for Global Movements? A Network for Networks for a Movement of Movements.” Physical activism is holding on strong!

Hacker Attacks

Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Virtual activism in the form of “denial of service” places a barrier to Internet access. Some say this is actually opposite to what environmentalists want – education, support, and action. Others say it is taking advantage of the technology to reach goals – directly interacting with governments and showing strong support for their cause.