The year in activism: Lessons from SOPA defeat, Kony 2012 backlash, Mike Daisey’s Apple affair

It was quite a year in activism, both about technology or enabled by technology.

From the defeat of SOPA to the Kony video to the backlash against Mike Daisey, there were plenty of examples of how the online world continued to play a big role in promoting or defeating a cause in 2012 — a year after the Arab Spring, the revolutions in the Middle East that were helped by social media.

The Stop Internet Piracy Act, anti-piracy legislation that opponents were afraid would lead to censorship, failed early this year after an unprecedented effort by Google, many other tech companies and activists to beat the music- and entertainment-industry-backed bill. (See Blackout day: Web’s ‘cyber tantrum’ already getting results.)

“Kony 2012,” which many might point to as the epitome of a viral video, brought awareness to the atrocities of a previously little-known Ugandan warlord via YouTube, where the documentary got million of views. But its makers got some backlash for what some saw as emotional and manipulative marketing, and a closer look at its finances questioned its lack of real impact. Amid the intense public scrutiny, filmmaker Jason Russell suffered a nervous breakdown.

Mike Daisey, the playwright who used critically acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to criticize Apple‘s labor practices in China, was found to have exaggerated — actually, lied — about some of the things he said he saw during a visit to a Foxconn plant in China, where Apple and other tech gadgets are made. Many saw Daisey’s lies as undermining the point he was trying to make — that some of those Chinese workers are subject to atrocious working conditions. (See The Daisey drama: The (tarnished) show goes on, but so does scrutiny of labor conditions.)

What lessons can be learned from the above examples? Since SOPA, other legislation and policy moves have inspired protests and been defeated. (See Anti-anti-piracy movement scores again: ACTA rejected in Europe.)

The Kony video and the Daisey affair show that the massive publicity enabled by technology makes it easier to keep people honest and accountable. It’s something activists can use not only against governments, individuals and non-profits, but also against companies with which we trust more and more of our data and personal information. (See Quoted: Instagram backtracks amid furor.)

And finally, the uproar over Daisey’s lies has died down, but the scrutiny — inspired by other things such as New York Times articles about Apple’s manufacturing practices and Apple CEO Tim Cook‘s commitment to change (see GMSV coverage) — has already managed to yield results. The NYT reported Wednesday that while many problems persist at the factories, some Chinese workers are seeing improved working conditions. “This is on the front burner for everyone now,” Gary Niekerk, director of corporate social responsibility at Intel, told the NYT.


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  • Sheldon Rothenberg

    I am glad that you reported Daisey’s story with proper balance. Yes, he exaggerated what he actually saw but raised imporant issues, even if he never saw what he reported.
    I have seen Daisey’s monologues and love them and wish he had been more forthcoming about what he actually saw.