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Online storm over prorogation updates 'the protest wheel'

Perhaps you’ve noticed how protest has become an online centre of attention.

Perhaps you’ve noticed how protest has become an online centre of attention.


Our current civic information structure is defined by undirected links, mash-ups, updates and postings. More so than ever, individual activism can snowball mass change.


It’s how an Albertan graduate student’s impulse to create a Canadians Against Proroging Parliament Facebook group kicked into high gear a movement that’s led to local chapters, freely distributed banners, catchy sloganeering and this weekend’s national Canadians For Democracy! Not For Prorogation protests.


The barrier to political activism has never been lower. Log onto Twitter, and the pro and con opinions can be accessed by typing in the hashtags #capp (Canadians Against Parliamentary Prorogation) or #roft (Right of Twitter, a play on 'Right of Centre'). Want a non-partisan news stream of links about the proroging issue? Try #cdnpoli or #canpoli.


If protest is unnerving authority by behaving unexpectedly, social media accomplished this. The “dead zone” announcement of prorogation went front page with users re-distributing mainstream media dispatches of staged photo ops and talking point memos. If anything, this online culture of participation has undermined Stephen Harper’s culture of secrecy.


“By itself, social media is not going to overthrow the Harper government,” said University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida in an interview published by Canadian online magazine The Tyee, analyzing this Canadian “online uprising.”


The BBC News vet — who studies the Web 2.0 impact on journalism — ultimately considers social media “an indicator of social change.”


But, “liking” a posting dissecting the torture probe or even re-tweeting a humorous quip by @cheddar_harper (Stephen Harper’s cuddly, ginger tabby kitten is a popular Twitter user) doesn’t necessarily guarantee attendance at the Jan. 23 rally. Evgevy Morozov, a Foreign Policy magazine contributing editor and commentator on the Internet and politics, pinpoints the downfall of web politics with the appropriate phrase “internet slacktivism.”


He describes “feel-good activism that has little or no political and social impact,” and warns, “Let us in the future be a bit more skeptical about the need to recreate the protest wheel.”


But why would we expect online protests to only lead to traditional mass offline protests?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing anyone’s right to democratic action. But if social media has already re-booted citizens’ “idle chatter,” surely we should consider how it also updates “the protest wheel.”


It’s these online connections that are enticing me to make those offline connections with people in my community — or at the very least, serve up a steaming plate of perogies.