Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Political Protest on the Net

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Political Protest on the Net

Article excerpt

1 Online Protest--Great Impact on Little Resources?

In June 2008, Kirsten Brodde, Greenpeace activist and blogger, responded to an offer made in a newsletter by the German coffee roaster and retailer Tchibo. Brodde asked the company, that had offered T-shirts with individual overprints, to send her two, one with the provocative line "Tchibo Shirts: Gefertigt fur Hungerlohne" (1) and one with "Dieses T-Shirt hat ein Kind fur Tchibo genaht" (2). The company delivered the ordered T-shirts and only afterwards asked the activist not to wear the shirts and to withdraw the photos of them from the Net (Amann 2008).

This anti-corporate act of culture jamming (3) that was reported in "Der Spiegel" on June 19th 2008 was not the first one of its kind. It bears some similarities with an internet provocation that was performed several years ago in the US. On January 5th 2001, Jonah Peretti, then assistant adjunct professor at New York University, wrote an email to Nike Corporation in response to the company's invitation to consumers to express their lifestyle identity by giving the company designing recommendations. (4) "..[A]ll they were really doing was sending instructions to cheap labour in developing countries" (Peretti/Micheletti 2004: 128), Peretti thought and ironically ordered a pair of Nikes with the word 'sweatshop' stitched onto them. By using the same online service that Nike used to strengthen its brand image for creating an illusion of consumer participation and personal freedom he tried to redirect the company's PR-tools against itself. The following dialogue with the customer service of Nike ended with Peretti's mocking request: 'Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?' He emailed his little culture-jamming discussion to about twelve friends who emailed it to their peers and like a snowball virus, the exchange was soon replicated a million of times (ibid. 129). In the end of January 2001, the first offline media outlet, the San Jose Mercury News, reported the story and soon afterwards, Time, Village Voice and Wall Street Journal, and even several European papers like The Guardian, La Repubblica and Liberation followed suit. Finally, the US TV Show NBC Today invited Peretti to discuss the issue of corporate social responsibility with a representative from the attacked company (ibid 136).

The symbolic attack of the culture jammer and netizen consumer Jonah Peretti on the self acclaimed corporate citizen Nike Corporation has not only received much international mass media resonance. His confrontation of a giant corporation is also widely referred to in academic literature on the potential of the internet for the mobilization of political protest.

In the first part of this article, I will argue that his provocative online action is rightly quoted that often, as it represents many aspects of a new kind of political action based on Net-based communication. After having discussed major characteristics of this new kind of protest action, I will show that taking the resonance of his email exchange as representative for cyberactivism and the dynamic interrelation between micro, middle, and macro media (Peretti 2004) in general would mystify the actual realization of the participative potential of net communication. In terms of average use of the interactive possibilities that net technology offers, empirical evidence is--at least as far as the analysis of websites of German-speaking anti-corporate protest actors shows--far less impressive than the often praised example of Jonah Peretti suggests.

2 Advantages and Disadvantages of Online-Communication for Protest Actors

Early reflections on the revitalization of the democratic potential of digital communication media have emphasized the high potential of the Internet to create a virtual political agora that would be particularly advantageous for civil society actors as it would offer new opportunities for counter public arenas as well as for the formation of deterritorialized communities (Rheingold 1993) (5). …

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