I saw a tweet on my Twitter feed from someone about a discounted pair of jeans. "They were $70 a pair. Just got some for $30." It was followed by the hash-tag #ThanksGetUp. It made me giggle so I did a search by that tag and found dozens of tweets thanking GetUp! for everything from improving their remote control to organising Lionel Richie’s hit song ‘All Night Long’ to follow a Hall and Oates medley.
We’d be mistaken to make too much of a hashtag but this one sheds some interesting light on perceptions about online activism. The implication is that organisations such as GetUp! can be mocked for the claims it makes about its successes — even as it provides little evidence of them.
I love GetUp! and in the past I have worked closely with the organisation. I always take note of what they send me. I read their emails with interest and have signed all but one of their petitions. I respect the people involved and believe they have been influential in a number of ways.
GetUp! has been highly successful in building a membership base and leveraging that base to campaign for reform in a range of policy areas. Its visibility is its great strength and it has inspired many members to identify for the first time as politically aware and active. The slick media packages that GetUp releases — most recently encouraging NSW voters to vote below the line in the upper house — can be readily and effectively shared on social media.
Members sign up, sign petitions and share campaign materials — and there are a range of ways they can become financial supporters of particular campaigns. Members are kept up to date with the progress of campaigns via email and encouraged to feel involved in the wins when they arise. Thanks to tactics like these, in a short time, GetUp! has become a byword for progressive causes. But what are the shortcomings of this model of online activism?
Let’s first look at GetUp!’s member base — which numbers 441,959 on the latest count. In a population of 22 million people, that is one hell of a lot of members. Indeed, with that many ‘members’ on board, it should have no problem ensuring the Australian government meets many of its campaign objectives: real action on climate change; seeing refugee children released from detention; marriage equality for same sex couples.
But what does GetUp! mean when it talks about its members? Members receive email petitions, requests for fundraising and also invitations to the occasional event. Are they really members — or names on a database who have at one point had some affinity with at least one campaign run by GetUp? Yes, being a member is important for many of us as we feel we are part of a broader group, a bigger movement. For many, signing up to an organisation’s email list can be the first step to further political action. That’s important — but it’s only the first step.
I was with a friend the other day and while she was on the phone, she glanced at her emails and pointed to a GetUp petition that she had just received. She scanned it and without breaking her conversation, filled in the fields, "signed" the petition and pressed send.
After she hung up I asked what she has supported and her answer was telling: "Something about poker machines". Specifically it had to do with Andrew Wilkie’s call for reforming the poker machine industry.
In the contemporary world, many organisations have found a use for online petitions and sign-on letters. What do they mean? Is a distracted signature what we want from our politically active citizens? Is this what GetUp! wants?
An online petition does not signify an engagement with an issue, a sense of empowerment to act or a willingness to change voting behaviour — despite claims leading up to Copenhagen that it would. If online petitions tendered by progressive organisations could do this, then the hundreds of thousands of GetUp! members would have both the Government and the Coalition running scared. Instead, they tune into talkback hosts.
There’s no doubt that GetUp! has been the driving force in some important campaigns. Their two victories in the High Court leading up to the 2010 election related to voter registrations and online registration were nothing short of brilliant. Likewise, their work, in coalition with many other organisations, to free David Hicks was also something they should be recognised for. These successes were built on their efforts to raise the profile of the issues in the minds of Australian voters.
So when GetUp! claims credit for the campaigns that are successful, is it drawing attention away from other organisations with different campaigning tactics. I received an email a while ago telling me how "we" (that is, GetUp! and me) had stopped the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania. Looking at their website, I read: "Following over 30,000 messages from GetUp! members and 1,000 people visiting their branch, in May ANZ announced they would not be funding the Gunns Pulp Mill, marking a major success for all involved!"
If you click on the campaign, you will find in small print that GetUp!’s partners are the Wilderness Society and BankTrack. Anyone familiar with the ongoing environmental struggles in Tasmania will know that The Wilderness Society was not a partner, but front and centre in the Gunns campaign. These campaigners have been attacked and abused, threatened and victimised in a long and dirty campaign.
I am sure that they were incredibly excited to have had the assistance of GetUp! on this campaign, but for GetUp! to claim the Gunns victory on behalf of their own members is misleading. This is not to say that GetUp! did not play an important role, but that role must be seen in context.
Such claims have the potential to alienate other organisations and even to undermine important allies. This may in turn inflict damage on the coalitions working to promote Australia’s progressive agenda.
This Saturday two rallies will take place simultaneously in Sydney: the first has been organised by the anti-carbon tax lobby while the second is a climate action rally in support of a price on carbon.
GetUp! is heavily promoting the later rally heavily, and in the last email I received, I was told that over 1,000 people had registered. Given the number of GetUp! members, I thought I’d misread the figure. Why didn’t it say ten times that number of people would show up?
And here lies the challenge for GetUp!: to sign something is easy, to stand up against the shock-jock inspired loony right is much harder. We need organisations like GetUp! to keep sharing information and inspiring aspiring activists.but can they transform 441,959 online signatories into active members?
As we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, social media was used to break down government propaganda and share information and organisational tools. Still, it was only when people came out on the streets that the regimes fell. I hope GetUp! does inspire tens of thousand out to rally in favour of action on climate change. Action is urgently needed — but we cannot rely on online activism alone. GetUp! as an organisation and we their supporters need to do more than take three seconds out of our day to sign a petition.
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