Thursday, May 13, 2010

How alternative media builds social movements

A Mother's Day reflection about the way alternative media, rabble in particular, not only reports on social movements but helps to build them as well.

Michelle Langlois
Published on (

Today I'm going to be speaking at an event called Building Social Movements Through Alternative Media  and I thought I'd share my remarks with rabble readers here in our staff blog. (Warning: this will be a looooong post!)

First of all, I want to wish everyone a Happy Mother's Day. As a mom myself of a politically astute 11 year-old son, and as a woman who has a strong and amazing mom who raised me to be a strong woman, a lovely stepmom, and an inspiring and interesting grandmother (or Oma, as I call her), this is a special day for me, and I'm sure that it is for many of you as well. So thanks for sharing this special day with me.

Mother's Day is not entirely off-topic when it comes to what I'm going to talk about today, which is building social movements through alternative media, and how the media organization I'm with,, does that. My talk is going to be a bit wide-ranging -- I'm going to talk about some of the stuff happening out there in the social and alternative media realm, and then how is plugging into that and helping to build movements.

The activist side of Mother's Day and where you'll hear about it
As I'm sure most of you know, the origins of the current North American Mother's Day started out as an activist holiday before it got co-opted by greeting card companies and flower shops. Wikipedia , an example of alternative media, tells us that the current Mother's Day started out in 1870 as "a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Proclamation was tied to Julia Ward Howe's feminist belief that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level."

Probably a lot of you knew that already if you're activist or progressive folks. But if you didn't, you might possibly have found that out if you did an online search on "Mother's Day" in order to send your mom an e-card or flowers and discovered the Wikipedia entry. Or you might have discovered it from an activist lefty or feminist friend on Facebook if they posted it as their Mother's Day greeting.

Or perhaps you might have read about it on an activist or alternative media site that publishes stories about the activist side of Mother's Day, instead of the happy, consumerist glurge you see on mainstream news - you know the kind of report. Streeters with shoppers at the mall, asking them they are buying Mom, or what meals they might cook for Mom this one time per year. (Okay, I get stuff cooked for me more than that, I'll admit.)

This is probably a good time to introduce what I do at rabble. I'm the editor of the In Cahoots  section of the site, and before that, I was a moderator of rabble's discussion forum, babble . rabble is a multimedia site, with a video section called rabbletv a podcast section called the rabble podcast network, a book review section called the rabble book lounge , a blog section, and of course lots of print articles and opinion pieces.

We also have what we call Issue Pages - these are pages that gather news and discussions from all areas of our site that are about a certain issue into one spot, so you can read all our site content on that particular issue. For instance, we have a G8/G20 page, a feminism page, an Indigenous Rights page, etc.

In Cahoots with
I'll tell you more about my area of the site, In Cahoots. This is where we post news from partnering organizations who support our web site. For instance, the story I posted for Mother's Day in the In Cahoots section is a campaign call from Amnesty International, one of our partners. They are promoting a campaign with other organizations called, where you can send an e-card to your mother for Mother's Day, and it will also send a message to Harper demanding that he keep maternal health on the agenda at the G8 summit.

This is an example of the way alternative media can be used to promote social justice causes. Any In Cahoots partner of ours that has any sort of campaign or news that they need to get the word out about has one more way of publicizing it and building awareness and action among the readers of our web site. This e-card campaign, for instance, is a good way to not only get people thinking politically about Mother's Day instead of the aforementioned glurge, but also for people to spread the word to others and to take action by sending a message to our elected politicians.

I'm always on the lookout for new In Cahoots partners, so if you are part of an organization whose news you'd like to reach a wide audience of activists and progressives across the country, let me know and I'll be happy to help you become a partner -- it's pretty painless [14]. We're a good way of getting the word out and driving traffic to your site, since the In Cahoots links go directly to the full story on your site.

Maternal health, pro-choice activism, and social media
I'd like to stay with the theme of Mother's Day because some interesting online activism has been happening over the past week that is a great example of how alternative and social media is being used to build social movements and actions.

As you've probably heard, the Harper government has decided that Canada's foreign aid for maternal health care initiatives will exclude abortion services. They tried to exclude even birth control a couple of months ago, but there was such a backlash that they had to back down on that.

But now they're excluding abortion services for women who need them in majority world nations. When an outcry started among pro-choice feminists about this, six mainstream aid organizations (including Plan Canada and UNICEF, if you can imagine) made a statement telling choice activists and opposition parties to shut up about abortion, otherwise funding could be delayed and women will die. As you can imagine, a great many pro-choice feminists were not happy with that statement!

Do you know how I know about all of this? It's not because I read about it in the mainstream news or saw it on TV. There may have been reports about it here and there in the mainstream news, but those came after the fact.

The first place I found out about that joint statement condemning activists instead of the Harper government is through social media -- namely Facebook and Twitter. As soon as I heard about it there, I posted it here on babble, which is my online community home, along with the e-mail addresses of all the organizations involved, and a call out for feminist activists to e-mail them about this. Bloggers were all over it too, spreading the word.

And that is where the feminist action began -- through alternative and social media. Feminists posted the news on many blogs and alternative media sites like rabble, and shared it with each other on Facebook and Twitter. The first thing we did was use these tools to inform each other.

Then we used them to organize. I'm sure you've all heard about Senator Nancy Ruth advising pro-choice activists to shut the fuck up about abortion because, as a pro-choice feminist herself, she was afraid it would become an election issue here if we needled Harper too much. Three Ontario NDP MPPs, including the leader, Andrea Horwath, put cards with X's on them over their mouths in the legislature as a protest. (Note: don't you love how the CTV headline calls it a "pro-abortion gesture" instead of "pro-choice"?)

Now, a grassroots campaign has started on Facebook and Twitter -- the "I Won't Shut The Fuck Up " campaign -- where women all over the country are putting Xs over their mouths on their profile pictures to protest conservative attempts to silence women on reproductive choice. You can see mine here.

Online organizing for offline results
Some campaigns happen mostly online, like this STFU campaign at the moment. People joke about this, I know -- about clicking a mouse instead of hitting the streets. But the fact is, the more people you engage with mouse-clicks, the more likely you're going to be to inspire people to go further than that. This is how I became politically active in real life -- I started with the click of my mouse on babble when I was a not-so-politically active single parent going to university.

Other campaigns organize online and then continue in the offline, real world. A great example of that is the No Prorogue protests. Some guy starts a Facebook group, it captures the mouse clicks and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, and then tens of thousands of those Canadians used social and alternative media sites and tools to organize locally and then hit the streets.

Alternative media sites like rabble not only reported on, but also supported these protests. We created a placard design to be used on signs at the street protests. We helped spread the word about organizing meetings using various features of our web site like babble and What's Up.

And we do that for all sorts of issues. During the Olympics, the Canadian mainstream media almost completely shut out any of the issues that protesters were talking about. International media covered it but mainstream Canadian media didn't.

Alternative media sure did, though. Let me tell you what rabble did to support and build the protests around the Olympics. First of all, we reported on it. Yes, that's pretty basic, but it was something that no one except alternative media was doing. We had bloggers and writers reporting from the Olympic actions ont he ground, and video coverage as well.

We used our In Cahoots section to link to our partners' web sites where they were building campaigns against the Olympics and sharing their news about it. We had our What's Up section available for anyone to promote events such as alternative Olympic events, forums, protests, information sessions, etc. (This section is always open to everyone to post activist, arts and culture and any other progressive events being held anywhere in the country, so please use it -- that's why it's there.)

Our discussion forum, babble, was a place where activists and progressives discussed all the issues behind the Olympics that the mainstream wasn't covering. It's a community, where people can share news and information, as well as interesting discussions. It was also a place where we discussed and debated tactics, and helped each other get to the bottom of why the protests were happening. Don't forget, there was education to be done, because the mainstream media was reporting that everyone supported the Olympics, including all the First Nations groups. So there was a lot of discussion and education to do with each other in the community around why we weren't hearing the whole story, and why people were protesting.

Basically, what we and many other alternative media did was to give Olympics protesters a platform, a place to amplify their voice, and the legitimacy that the mainstream media denied them.

We plan to do the same thing for the G8/G20 summits here in Toronto in June, as well as the People's Summit the week beforehand. We will be reporting. We will be promoting our progressive partners' actions in In Cahoots. We will offer online space for organizing and discussing tactics and strategies, and for announcing events and meetings. We will be one of the alternative media destinations to go to find news about the G8/G20 that the mainstream news almost certainly will not cover.

Why alternative media builds social movements
We do this because alternative media is not just about reporting. It is about reporting, but that's not all. Traditional media is about one-way reporting, one-to-many reporting. They talk, you listen as a passive audience.

Alternative media is about facilitating communication between people, between activists and organizations, and about raising voices that don't get heard in the mainstream media. It's about helping to build movements, not just report on them. It's about creating space for people to organize, creating and sharing online tools to help make that happen.

It's about online communities gathering news themselves, being citizen journalists, citizen pundits, analyzing the world around us and sharing that analysis with each other, instead of being told by "opinion leaders" what our opinions should be.

So I hope that we can continue to work together on building our social movements and activism. Because that's also what alternative media is about -- working together, collaborating, sharing. I look forward to a lot more sharing and activism with you.

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