From Passive Reader to Active Participant

In the old days (before the Internet) there was clear separation between reading about injustice and acting on it. One could read about dozens of cases of violations of human rights in the newspaper, or hear about them on television or radio. And entirely separate from this, there were campaigning organizations which gave activists opportunities to make their voices heard. There was very little overlap between reading and acting in the traditional media. But on the Internet, this distinction (between passively learning about a problem and actively doing something about it) is becoming blurred.
The obvious change is in terms of speed. We can now respond rapidly to cases of violations of trade union rights, or to appeals by workers for solidarity during disputes with employers and governments. But much more than that is taking place.
By integrating news with the possibility to act, we are beginning to change people’s behavior when they read news online. They move from being passive observers to active participants.

That all sounds a bit philosophical, so let me be practical, giving a real-life example.
When the LabourStart website was launched in March 1998, it featured columns on its front page including news and campaigns. The news and campaigns were entirely separate from one another. And even as the project moved along and grew, news and campaigns remained separate functions. Of course there were efforts to occasionally link the two, but nothing systematic.
Recently, we changed all that, and began a process of integrating trade union news with campaigning. It was a simple thing to do, technically, but the effect is going to be powerful.
Today when you see a headline on LabourStart like “Cambodia: Arbitration Council orders Raffles Hotel to reinstate workers” the words “Act NOW!” will appear next to it, as a link. So if you want not just to read about this news story but to instantly act on it, you click on the “Act NOW!” link, which takes you to the page where you can send off your message of protest.
That’s one half of what’s going on. The other half is what happens on the campaign page itself.
Many unions and campaigning organizations have pages set up where visitors can send off email messages of protest or solidarity. One of the most sophisticated systems is the one set up by the AFL-CIO in the USA. They call their system the “Working Families E-Activist Network”. It’s a powerful system and very effective, but like most of the ones I’ve seen, when you are taken to the page where you’re supposed to take action, you basically see an online form with the text of the protest, some background information, and a ‘send this message’ button.
What you don’t see is what now features on LabourStart’s system: a prominent display of current news and updates about this campaign.
For example, if you were to visit the campaign page on LabourStart which is building solidarity with Cambodian hotel workers, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the headline “Latest news about this campaign”. This is followed by links to seven recent news stories about the struggle there. In this way, you’d have learned that unions representing 35 million workers in Russia had expressed their strong support for the Cambodian workers, or that a prominent Democratic congressman from the USA had called for international organizations to boycott the hotel.
The page becomes not only a place where you go once, to send off a message of protest, but a page to which you will return, to find out what’s happened to these workers.
And that’s important because sending off a message of protest should not be a one-off thing. We want people to remain involved, to be informed and updated. That’s why the news is such an important part of the campaign page.
We don’t claim any credit for inventing the idea of integrating news and campaigns. The very best trade union websites already do so. For example, many of the Australian websites have long followed this approach. A current example can be found on the website of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU), whose campaigns routinely include lists of current news stories related to them.
You still can’t do this in a print publication or even on radio — but television is increasingly becoming a tool which might allow the same sort of approach. Interactive television is a reality, at least in Britain where one can do online banking, participate in an online poll, or even order a pizza using a remote control.
The day may not be far off when you will be able to see a report on some terrible injustice on your television news. Instead of just moaning about how terrible that is, you’ll be able to click on the red button on your remote. In this way, you’ll be able to add your name to an online petition, or send off a protest message to a government or employer, or even make a donation to a strike fund.
All this without getting up off your couch, seconds after hearing about the need for action.
That’s not possible today, but the web is giving us a glimpse of a new era, one in which millions of working people will be able to instantly act across borders and time zones — an era in which a tremendously strengthened international labour movement once again takes its place on the world stage.
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